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Post Column: Sinkholes: a danger lurks beneath our feet

Your happy local information tidbit of the day: Athens and the rest of Ohio are in perpetual danger of sinking into giant holes in the ground.

On Feb. 28, in the middle of the night, a sinkhole opened up underneath Jeff Bush’s house in Hillsborough County, Fla.

The sinkhole, which was caused by the collapse of earth underground because of rainfall saturation, is estimated to be at least 60 feet deep. Last week, investigators lowered a camera through the house’s window to show the giant, gaping cavern that took the house’s entire bedroom and claimed Bush’s life.

And the Florida case isn’t the worst. In 2010, a sinkhole that appeared in Guatemala City swallowed an entire three-story building in a perfectly circular hole. It too was caused by a ground collapse from extra rainfall.

Staring at the hole where the three-story building went, I, being the reasonably paranoid person that I am, immediately Googled “sinkhole threat in Ohio.”

And I, being the optimistic person that I am, expected to see a report on how safe and snug from sinkholes Athens is.

Unfortunately, I was wrong. All of eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania is part of the 35 percent of the United States that lies on weak evaporite or carbonate rock. That is, our rock is composed of large amounts of limestone, gypsum, salt or other similar minerals that dissolve in water, which makes the land particularly susceptible to collapsing from increased rainfall.

Feel afraid. Very afraid.

This leads to an equally distasteful but relevant subject: insurance. In Florida and Tennessee, the government mandated that insurance companies include sinkhole coverage in the basic insurance package, so that all residents are allowed protection from sinkhole damage, which can lead to thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars in damage.

For example, the Hillsborough County house had to be razed entirely because it was structurally unsound. And, of course, there was that entire three-story building in Guatemala that disappeared into the earth.

But insurance companies don’t always (if ever) play fair, and the government should regulate their policies and actions even further. For example, the house of another Florida couple, John and Tina Furlow, was hit in August 2011 with a small sinkhole about 2 feet wide and 5 feet deep. They attempted to get insurance money to either have the sinkhole fixed or to move out of the house.

However, a year and a half has passed, and the insurance company still refuses to acknowledge their claims. Meanwhile, the couple does not have enough money to move to another house, and are forced to remain in the house, where the sinkhole has grown to some 8 or 9 feet in diameter. The insurance company’s unfair practices are needlessly endangering the family.

In other cases, insurance companies are allowed to deny sinkhole insurance to people who live within a mile of a previous sinkhole incident.

This second case is an obviously blatant example of geographic discrimination. Just because a client lives in a particular area that the insurance company deems dangerous and unprofitable, the client is denied the same equal opportunity to obtain sinkhole insurance.

The government should intervene in such cases, and force insurance companies to obey contracts and refrain from restricting insurance eligibility. Sinkhole insurance is just one example of a situation in which bigger government is necessary to protect citizens from the discriminatory and unfair practices of private corporations.

Kevin Hwang is a senior at Athens High School who is taking classes at Ohio University and a columnist for The Post. Are you afraid of sinkholes? Email Kevin at kh319910@ohiou.edu.

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