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Abandoned mines hold flood threat

Miners use thin probes to test for water as they near old shafts

Friday, July 26, 2002

By Steve Levin and Lillian Thomas, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Mine inundations are relatively rare, and the focus of safety training and equipment is fire, smoke and gases.

Before Wednesday's flood at the Quecreek Mine, there had been four others in southwestern Pennsylvania since June 1999. They occurred at the Cumberland Mine in Greene County, Mine No. 84 in Washington County, and the Longview and Barbara mines in Somerset County. None of those incidents resulted in injuries.

On March 3, 2000, at 12:45 p.m., two crews in the Barbara coal mine run by Dunmire Resources in Somerset County were mining a seam when they drilled too close to an existing 3-inch diameter corehole, causing it to burst open. Thousands of gallons of water spewed into the mine from an adjacent mine that was filled with water, much like that from the abandoned mine adjacent to Quecreek Mine.

The eight miners were in what's known as the belt entry area, where the belts that carry the coal out of the mine are located. Bob Smith, foreman of one of the two crews, recalled that maps had shown the corehole was supposed to be four feet farther away from where they were.

Instead, he recalled yesterday, "it was probably three feet in the rib [of the wall]," and when the crews mined the area, the hole blew open.

About 250,000 gallons of water poured through the small hole with enough force to crash against the far side of the 6-foot-tall entry hall 20 feet away.

"That's pretty awesome," said Smith, 43, who's been a miner for 21 years and currently works with DLR Mining at the Triple K Mine in Indiana County. "It was running full force. It sounded like someone had turned a fire hydrant on."

The water covered a 100-square-foot area, Smith said. But since the mine's gradient was so steep, the water ran downhill, so that none of the crew was in danger, he said.

Louis Lambert, the mine foreman at the time of the incident and a 33-year veteran of mining in southwestern Pennsylvania, said yesterday that the biggest danger to the miners was a lack of oxygen.

"What was coming down that hole was bad air along with the water," he said. The bad air, also called dead air, was carbon dioxide, he said.

Smith and Lambert said that once the water began pouring through the hole, the miners retrieved their equipment and then backed 150 feet to 200 feet away.

Then miners began using pumps to remove the water.

Smith's shift ended by mid-afternoon, and a crew including Denny Vokin took over the job of pumping out the water. After four hours, the onrushing water from the abandoned mine finally petered out. But it took almost a week to pump all the water from Barbara Mine.

"What happened to us wasn't life threatening," said Vokin, 49, of Ebensburg, a 30-year veteran of mines. "But in the back of your mind you would think that wherever that water was coming from, it would be possible for that roof to collapse."

Though miners receive extensive training in how to react to fires and how to escape fatal gases and smoke, they are not schooled in fighting floods underground.

The main guards against the danger of water gushing into a mine are maps and space. State regulations determine how close a new shaft can approach an old mine, typically 200 feet. Miners rely on maps to determine what route they must take to maintain that barrier.

State Department of Environmental Protection officials at the Quecreek Mine scene said the required distance was 200 feet.

Larry Cuddy, safety supervisor at Consol Energy's Bailey Mine in Greene County, said it's "just about guaranteed" that old shafts contain water.

"We know not to cross that boundary," he said, adding that engineering teams usually survey the entries to new mines to make sure the new shaft goes in the direction it should.

When a mining company knows that it is near an area of old mines, or is close to the 200-foot limit, it drills small holes in advance of mining to be sure water is not ahead.

Although there are no old mines around Bailey, Cuddy said he has worked at other sites where miners approaching an old shaft would drill a 2-inch hole to make sure they don't hit water. If water starts coming in, the hole can be plugged.

Mine maps typically mark elevations and indicate low spots where water is likely to collect.

Raja Ramani, professor emeritus and former head of Penn State University's mining training program, said regulators, particularly in Pennsylvania, have in recent decades made great strides in collecting and preserving mine maps but documents on older shafts abandoned more than 30 years ago may be incomplete.

"There are all kinds of issues here," he said. "There may be no map. Even if there is a map, it may be inaccurate. The mapping techniques may be quite archaic and finally the conditions of the maps may be quite difficult."

George Ellis, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Association, said early indications are that the old mine at the Somerset County site, which he believed was called Saxon No. 2, may have dated from the late 1800s.

"Sometimes those old working plans don't have precise locations," he said.

Staff writer Jim McKay contributed to this report.

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