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Quecreek: Unmapped mines long a worry

Some voids near Somerset County mine located in 1999; state was looking for more

Friday, August 02, 2002

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Quecreek miner Mark Popernack's mining machine accidentally punched a hole in the abandoned, flooded Saxman Mine about 9 p.m. July 24, he and his fellow miners were surprised by the gushing water.

Maybe they shouldn't have been.

Click photo to download a .pdf image of the Saxman mine map on file with the State Department of Environmental Protection. (311K)

You must have Adobe Acrobat Reader, available as a free download from Adobe.

The miners were following maps that showed they were 300 feet from the old mine. But a document in the state Department of Environmental Protection's McMurray District Mining Office shows that state and mine officials in 1999 knew there were unmapped mine voids in the area and that the DEP was concerned there were more that they didn't know about.

The issue of unmapped voids arose in September 1999 at a public meeting on Black Wolf Mining Co.'s application to revise its Quecreek Mine permit. The company was seeking, and got, permission to increase the mining area from 272 acres to 3,666 acres.

A DEP response document, dated Nov. 16, 1999, stated that "unmapped mine voids were encountered near the southern permit boundary."

The document states that the mining company was notified of the unmapped voids and maps of the abandoned mine were revised accordingly.

It goes on to say, "If residents know locations of other unmapped mining, these locations should be sent to either the [DEP] or mining company so they can be located, mapped and avoided."

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The accidental breaching of the barrier between the mines, which sent an estimated 50 million gallons of water into the Quecreek Mine and trapped nine miners for more than three days, occurred as miners were near the southernmost end of the active latticework of mine tunnels and pillars, 240 feet below the surface.

That site is close to the southern border of the 272-acre mine approved in the original permit March 31, 1999.

William Plassio, DEP district mining manager in McMurray, said yesterday he didn't know if the unmapped mine voids mentioned in the document were near the location where the accident occurred.

"We will be asking those questions of our permitting people. We'll be asking where those mine voids were found, how they were encountered and what was done to update the maps," Plassio said. "The answers will be key to the investigations."

The state DEP and its Office of Deep Mine Safety are investigating, as is the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and a special commission set up by Gov. Mark Schweiker and headed by Raja V. Ramani, professor emeritus of mining engineering and geo-environmental engineering at Penn State University.

Among the questions investigators will tackle are the accuracy of the mine maps and whether more safeguards are needed to protect miners where new mining is done adjacent to old, flooded mines like Saxman.

"We're into an investigation and can't make comments on individual issues that arise," said John Reptz, a DEP spokesman for the Office of Deep Mine Safety, "mainly because we don't have those answers ourselves yet. The investigation is just starting."

David Rebuck, president and superintendent of the Quecreek Mine, said the mining followed the state permit and used the old maps, certified by company-hired mining engineers, to set the boundaries for the expanded mining area.

"We thought we were complying with the law. We did not know there was any unmapped portion of the old mine in that area," Rebuck said, adding that no exploratory drilling was done in advance of the mining.

Robert Ging, an environmental attorney in Confluence, Somerset County, said the document from the September 1999 public meeting shows the DEP's mining permit office should have done more to verify the accuracy of the Quecreek maps.

Plassio defended his permit reviewers.

"The fact that there were miners trapped makes this a big problem, but is it a common problem? No," he said. "Lives were in jeopardy and that makes it important. I'm confident in my staff's ability and in their thoroughness for reviewing applications."

The old Saxman Mine map, part of the Quecreek permit documents, dates to 1952 and has been faded and discolored by the years. A faded notation on the back of the map states "Mine shut down 1-1-68. All equipment out of mine."

Plassio said that in addition to making copies of the Quecreek Mine file for state and federal investigators, his office is reviewing the permits of 34 of the 53 active deep mines in the state that are operating adjacent to abandoned mines.

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