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Quecreek's mine permit looks OK

Wednesday, July 31, 2002

By Johnna A. Pro and Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

QUECREEK, Pa. -- The president of Black Wolf Mining Co. said it will take several weeks for inspectors to work their way 8,000 feet into the Quecreek Mine to determine what caused the flood trapped nine men underground for more than three days.

David Rebuck, president of Black Wolf Mining Co.: "We're going to learn something from this. I believe the laws will be changed." (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

But early indications are the Quecreek Mine's permit provided more of a buffer zone than the law required with the adjacent, water-filled Saxman Mine. Inaccurate maps of that old mine may have played a major role in the accident.

Karl Lasher, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees mining operations, said the state permit for the Quecreek Mine shows the operator never intended to get closer than 200 feet to the abandoned and flooded Saxman Mine -- well outside the 95-foot buffer required by its permit.

"The permit was filed correctly and more than met the requirements of the law," Lasher said. "These guys wanted to leave a 200-foot buffer. They didn't want to get anywhere near that water and were playing it very safe. It just didn't work out.

"Something went wrong and the investigation will try to determine just what that was," he said.

Lasher said it remains to be determined if Quecreek was operating within its permitted area or whether maps of the Saxman Mine, which closed in 1957, were grossly inaccurate.

The second scenario is said to be more likely.

"It's an accepted fact that the old mine maps, particularly those of the smaller mines, often don't indicate where the final mine boundaries were," said Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the National Mine Land

 
 
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Rescued miner released from hospital

   
 

Reclamation Center at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

"Today's mining and survey controls are more rigid than they used to be, so I suspect it's more likely the old mine maps are wrong than that the new mine was mining outside its permitted boundary."

The state permit for Quecreek required a 95-foot buffer between the new mine and the Saxman Mine -- a 50-foot buffer required by state law, plus an additional foot for every foot of water backed up in the old mine at an elevation above that of the new mine.

Quecreek was also required by state and federal law to drill small-diameter, 20-foot-long horizontal bore holes into the face of the coal seam if the operation approached within 200 feet of the old mine.

The Quecreek miners never drilled bore holes because the maps they were using showed they were at least 300 feet away.

"It appears the problem occurred because the error in the mapping was greater than the safety precautions required," said Bruce Leavitt, a mining engineer and hydrogeologist who works as a private consultant in the mining industry.

He said it's possible new technology -- including underground seismic imaging -- could be used to provide better information on abandoned mines or an effort could be mounted to remap them, although that would be extremely costly and time-consuming.

David Rebuck, president and superintendent of the mine, said he was not aware of any new technology that would help mine operators know in advance the location of an old mine and its boundaries.

"We're going to learn something from this," Rebuck said. "I believe the laws will be changed."

Miners use a scooper to move a power-supply unit that was being taken into the entrance of the Quecreek Mine. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Leavitt said the mining industry and Legislature should not hit the "panic button."

"It's important to improve safety and it's worth spending some money to do that, but it's important to note that this is the first time anything like this has happened in 30 years," Leavitt said. "We have robust safety protections, but they can be improved."

Mining companies are required by law to map the work they do daily and provide updated maps to the DEP every six months.

Had Quecreek's maps and surveys been wrong, rescue workers would not have been able to pinpoint the location of the trapped miners with such accuracy, Rebuck said.

Rebuck said that the mine is inspected quarterly by state and federal officials, who often are at the site for days or even weeks at a time.

An inspection was taking place when the accident occurred.

Rebuck said mining regulations are stringent and that Black Wolf, crews are told not to put speed over safety.

"We do not operate that way," he said. "We've never operated that way. The safety of the miners is the utmost."

Step-by-step reclamation

Rebuck said reclamation of the mine and the investigation will be done in four phases over the next several weeks.

"Right now, we're monitoring the water level," he said. "As the water recedes, we can put the mine back together."

In phase one, crews will work from the surface to continue pumping water out and rehabilitating damaged areas.

The second phase work will be done about halfway into the mine, where a water pumping station is situated. That equipment, used to keep the mine dry, likely will need to be overhauled.

Phase three will occur in the section between the pumping station and the mouth of the area where the miners were trapped. In that area, the ventilation system likely will need to be repaired.

Phase four -- in the section where the workers were trapped -- likely will require extensive repairs, including to the ventilation system.

When they reach that final section, inspectors will better be able to determine how the accident occurred. State and federal inspectors will oversee recovery of the 1-year-old mine and must approve every step before it will be reopened, Rebuck said.

"We intend to be here once the recovery effort and the investigation [are] completed," Rebuck said.

The mine employs 63 and, as of last week, had reached a level of digging out 700,000 tons of coal annually. The estimated life of the mine is 10 to 15 years.

Rebuck said none of the employees has been laid off -- all are working on repairs.

Joe Yuhas, a lawyer who is also a mine safety and health consultant for the company, said, "From what I've seen and everyone I've talked to, I believe we're in compliance with the permits and the federal and state regulations."

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