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State, U.S. launch investigations into Quecreek mine accident

Tuesday, July 30, 2002

By Don Hopey, Ann McFeatters and John M.R. Bull, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

With the nine trapped Somerset County miners rescued and doing well, state and federal investigations have started into why the Quecreek Mine flooded and how such accidents can be averted in the future.

More on the Quecreek Mine rescue

Happy ending to real-life drama enthralls audience around globe

It all looks good to miners, as two more are released from hospital

Quecreek Mine rescue, cleanup to cost millions

Columnist Tony Norman: Mining the deep, murky well of celebrity

Miners head into a world of darkness

A guide to previous post-gazette.com coverage of the Quecreek Mine rescue


"Pennsylvania miners and their families need to be assured that we will do everything within our power to make sure that an event like this never happens again -- that should be the legacy of this frightful experience," Gov. Mark Schweiker said yesterday.

Schweiker is establishing an investigative commission that will look at the conduct of the mining company and its operations, and especially whether it conducted small core-drilling probes in advance of the mining operation that would have told the miners they were close to the flooded Saxman mine nearby.

When the wall between the two mines was breached, more than 7 million tons of water flooded into the Quecreek Mine, trapping the nine miners. Another crew of miners got out safely.

Schweiker said one of the miners recuperating in Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown told him they did no core drilling.

David Hess, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, which issues mining permits, said such probes may not have been required by the state's permit. He said the probes are required only if the mining company is within 200 feet of another mine.

Hess said DEP mining officials will review the permit issued in March 1999 to Black Wolf Coal Co., owner of the Quecreek Mine.

John Weir, a spokesman for Black Wolf, said he didn't know if the probes were drilled or were required by the permit.

Around the state, 34 of the 53 active underground mines are adjacent to underground pools that have filled abandoned mines. Hess said his department will immediately review whether any of those are similar to the Saxman and Quecreek mines.

Schweiker said the nine-member panel will be headed by Raja V. Ramani, professor emeritus of mining engineering and geo-environmental engineering at Penn State University and will include representatives of the United Mine Workers, mine engineers and surveyors, the state Department of Environmental Protection, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and coal mine operators.

In addition to the core drilling issue, the commission is expected to review the design and layout of the mine to determine if the accident could have been prevented; the state's permit review procedures; maps of nearby abandoned mines; worker safety measures and compliance with approved mine plans and operation requirements.

Robert Ging, an environmental attorney in Somerset County, said the accident at Quecreek shows that the DEP needs to improve its permit process and place more emphasis on miner safety.

"It's well-known in the industry that the old deep mine maps are inaccurate, so a prudent mining company would drill to determine where the coal barriers are. This could have been prevented if the DEP permit staff was more diligent," Ging said.

Dave Lauriski, assistant secretary of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said yesterday that his agency is beginning a separate investigation that will take several months. Among other things, water must be pumped out of the mine to allow investigators to examine the area where the water broke through.

At a news conference in Arlington, Va., yesterday, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, Lauriski and Ray McKinney, administrator for coal mine safety and health of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, emphasized that the nine miners were saved because of their own skills, training and bravery and because of "almost miraculous" pinpointing of their location by rescue teams. The technology used was "recently acquired," Chao said.

McKinney was wearing headphones after communications equipment was dropped to the men Saturday night and kept saying, "Hello, can anyone hear us?" After a long while, he said, he heard a faint "Hello." It was a great moment, he said.

Lauriski and McKinney said the most critical decision in the rescue came when John Urosek, chief of the Mine Safety and Health Administration's ventilation division in Pittsburgh, came up with the "life-saving idea of holding back the water [threatening the miners] by continuing to force compressed air into the cavity where the miners were trapped."

When the fresh air arrived in the 20-foot-by-50-foot air pocket where the men were trapped, Lauriski said, they were already showing signs of oxygen deprivation -- nausea, a feeling of tightness in the chest and headache.

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