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Quecreek Mine rescue, cleanup to cost millions

Mine's future is uncertain

Tuesday, July 30, 2002

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Quecreek Mine rescue and cleanup likely will cost several million dollars, with most of the bill going to the mining company and its insurance carrier, an official with an affiliated mining company said yesterday.

For now, he said, there no are guarantees that the 2-year-old mine will reopen. That hinges on whether government mining inspectors find Quecreek safe in the wake of the flood Wednesday night that sent at least 50 million gallons of water washing in, said Timothy Phillips, marketing director with PBS Coals Inc.

PBS, based in nearby Friedens, is primarily a surface mining company that owns Quecreek coal rights and hired newly formed Black Wolf Mining Co. to do the deep mining, the underground work that PBS seldom does.

Quecreek got its mining permit in 1999, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. And mining began in earnest last year, averaging 45,000 to 50,000 tons of coal a month -- mostly fuel for power plants -- from a mine that PBS forecasts could yield 20 million tons.

DEP spokespeople handling the Quecreek aftermath did not return phone calls yesterday. But Phillips said the bill for the rescue, which started Wednesday night and lasted into early Sunday morning, will come back to Black Wolf.

The tab, still being put together, is expected to total "less than $10 million" and probably will come in around "several million," Phillips said.

"I stood looking at all the equipment and personnel, and it's going to be a pretty hefty cost when it's done," William Baker, deputy director of the Somerset County Emergency Management Agency, said yesterday.

The rescue brought an army of workers, from drillers to crane operators.

As they pulled out after the intensive effort that brought all nine trapped miners out alive, they gave Black Wolf President David Rebuck "requisitions by the handful," Phillips said.

"Absolutely the last thing on his mind was, 'What's it going to cost?' " Phillips said.

When Rebuck gets around to tallying that and sending the bills off to his insurance carrier, he could find himself paying a deductible -- which could be a problem with the mine flooded and at least temporarily shut down and no cash flow, Phillips said.

In turn, Black Wolf could go to PBS for a loan and "we'll see if we can help him," Phillips said.

Rebuck's and PBS' longer-term problem is whether Quecreek ever will reopen. More than half the water that poured into the mine at an estimated 50,000 gallons a minute has yet to be pumped out.

The water, which collected in an uncharted dig in the long-idle Saxman No. 2 Mine, was chemically benign -- "potable but not palatable," Scott Roberts, DEP deputy for mineral resources, said Sunday.

In the fever pitch of the rescue, it was pumped into nearby streams. Now the water being pumped from Quecreek Mine is being piped to treatment ponds, Phillips said. When that process is finished and inspectors can go through the mine -- a process for which no timetable has been set -- the decision will be made on whether some or all of Quecreek is safe to reopen.

With that rides the future of Quecreek's relatively small work force -- a group that faces the risks of mining in exchange for annual pay that one Quecreek miner set at $40,000. The most recent census figures place median household income in the county at $31,900.

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