A relic of King Coal is at risk

A relic of King Coal is at risk

One of the last great relics of coal mining in Northeastern Pennsylvania may be dismantled and sold for scrap – or preserved as a monument to a bygone industry.

Either way, the owner of the Huber Breaker – a huge, hulking, boxy steel-and-glass structure once used to crush, wash and sort anthracite coal – is determined that its fate be decided soon.

“It’s just coming to a point where something’s got to be done, now,” Al Roman said in an interview at his office near the Huber. “It has to become a museum or it has to be torn down. We can’t continue to pay insurance on a structure like this.”

The 68-year-old Huber Breaker, one of the last remaining anthracite breakers in the United States, has deteriorated badly since its closure in 1976.

Roman, president of No. 1 Contracting Corp., a heavy-construction company, bought the breaker in 1997 for $25,000. He pledged six years ago to donate it for historic preservation, but negotiations, which have intensified in recent weeks, have yet to bear fruit.

Hundreds of breakers that once dotted the mountain landscape have disappeared. In the 1800s and early 1900s, these structures processed virtually all the nation’s anthracite, providing fuel for the Industrial Revolution and heat for cities and towns up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

Working in the breakers was a dirty, dangerous job; many workers were killed or maimed by the giant machinery or died from black lung disease. Boys hired to pick rock and slate from the coal worked long hours in horrendous conditions.

Walt Zimski, 68, of Wapwallopen, has vivid memories of working at the Huber Breaker in the early 1960s. His jobs there included operating coal cars, picking slate, and breaking up large chunks of coal with a sledgehammer.

“I stood at the top [of the Huber] and that god-danged thing would be shaking,” said Zimski.

Zimski said he would like to see the Huber preserved. “I was a part of history and didn’t even know it,” he said.

Roman, too, said he wants the breaker turned into a museum. But salvagers are offering him hundreds of thousands of dollars for the breaker’s high-grade steel, and Roman longs to be rid of what has become a gigantic liability.

So, on Nov. 27, he wrote a letter that received widespread publicity – and sparked a flurry of activity between Roman and local and state government officials seeking the breaker’s preservation.

Writing that “steel is at an all-time high,” Roman gave the Luzerne County Redevelopment Authority, the agency with which he had been negotiating, 10 days to agree to his terms: the breaker property in exchange for 21 acres of nearby authority-owned land. The authority, to that point, had offered Roman only six acres.

Allen Bellas, executive director of the redevelopment authority, said in an interview that the land requested by Roman is part of an 80-acre former rail yard the authority intends to develop as an industrial park.

Even if the authority wanted to part with the 21 acres, he said, it wouldn’t be easy: The entire 80-acre tract is collateral for a loan the agency took out for site cleanup.

Bellas said a more promising solution is a cash buyout. Two members of the authority’s board broached the idea to Roman last month.

Roman, however, said he is dubious that any government agency would be able to come up with the kind of money he has been offered to sell the breaker for scrap. He maintains that a land swap is the cheapest way out of the stalemate.

Some people have accused Roman of trying extort the public, but he said he is not motivated by money. “We’re going to lose money no matter how we do this. Everybody thinks we’re trying to hold people up for money. That’s not the case,” said Roman, an engineer whose company, which he started in 1959, builds bridges, roads and other public works.

Luzerne County Commissioner Greg Skrepenak, whose grandfather died in an accident at the Huber, said that if Roman and the redevelopment authority don’t reach an agreement, he might seek to have the breaker condemned. That is a legal process by which the government can seize private property for the public’s benefit, paying fair market value to the owner.

“I think at the end of the day, everyone pretty much wants the same thing,” Skrepenak said. “I think there’s going to be a resolution soon.”

Although Roman and the redevelopment authority are seemingly at loggerheads despite weeks of discussions, many involved in the effort to save the Huber nevertheless say they are more optimistic than ever.

The Huber Breaker Preservation Society, a nonprofit group working with Roman and the redevelopment authority, is sitting on about $250,000 in grant money to replace windows and refurbish signage. Bill Best, the group’s president, said he believes there will be a favorable outcome, and soon.

“It’s never been this close for the dream to become a reality,” he said.

The Huber Breaker

It was named in honor of Charles F. Huber, chairman of Glen Alden Coal Co.

Constructed of steel and glass, it replaced a wooden breaker from 1895.

It produced 7,000 tons of coal per day and employed 1,700 workers.

It houseda series of mechanical devices that sized and washed coal.

Coal processed at Huber Breaker was sprayed with a blue chemical and marketed as “Blue Coal.”

The coal was delivered by rail to East Coast markets.

SOURCES: Huber Breaker Preservation Society, Historic American Engineering Record, AP

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