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Lawmakers urge Fisher to convene a grand jury probe of Quecreek Mine accident

Saturday, August 03, 2002

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Two state lawmakers have asked state Attorney General Mike Fisher to convene a grand jury to look at possible criminal misconduct by the Department of Environmental Protection's permitting office and Black Wolf Mining Co. in connection with last month's Somerset County mine accident.

Miners work with the pipes used to pump water out of the flooded Quecreek Mine yesterday. The state has shut down the pumps because of excessive amounts of iron in the water, temporarily slowing the cleanup and lengthening the time until investigators can enter the mine. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

The lawmakers made the request in a letter to Fisher yesterday. They were prompted by reports that DEP documents show the permitting office and the mining company knew of unmapped mine voids adjacent to the Quecreek Mine site in Somerset County, but took no extra precautions.

"We want the attorney general to convene a grand jury investigation into whether any of this rises to the level of criminal misconduct in terms of the DEP's or the company's conduct," said Rep. David Levdansky, D-Forward.

Signing the letter to Fisher along with Levdansky was Rep. Daniel Surra, D-Elk.

Meanwhile, a Fayette County citizens group, the Mountain Watershed Association, asked the Schweiker administration to convene a grand jury investigation of the Quecreek Mine accident, which trapped nine miners 240 feet below ground for more than three days.

On July 24, the miners accidentally broke through to an adjacent, abandoned mine that was filled with groundwater, causing an estimated 50 million gallons to pour into the Quecreek Mine.

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The mining company, which relied on 50-year-old maps to set the boundaries of the Quecreek Mine and drilled no holes to probe for mine voids in advance of the mining, thought the miners were 300 feet from the abandoned Saxman Mine.

Fisher was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Michael Lukens, a spokesman for Mark Schweiker, said the governor hadn't seen the lawmakers' letter and could not comment on it.

David Rebuck, president of Black Wolf Mining Co., which operates the mine for Quecreek Mining Inc., a subsidiary of PBS Coals Inc., was unavailable for comment.

In calling for a grand jury, the lawmakers cited the reliance on old mining maps known to be inaccurate by the mining company and by the DEP permitting office in McMurray, and the compliance record of PBS Coals, which over the last two years has been cited for at least 90 federal mine safety violations, a third of which were classified as "serious and substantial."

The letter also noted that PBS or its subsidiaries have been involved with two other mines -- the Diamond T Mine and the RoxCoal Longview Mine, both near Indian Lake in Somerset County -- that flooded within the last five years.

"Based on the common knowledge that much of the area around the Quecreek Mine was undermined and that historic mining maps are notoriously inaccurate, the department should have been more diligent in requiring the company to evaluate the hydrological consequences of the proposed mine," the lawmakers wrote.

"Moreover, given the record of the mining company and its parent, the department should have exercised more caution in allowing these mining activities to proceed."

Levdansky and Surra praised the governor for appointing a special commission to investigate the accident but said a grand jury, with the power to subpoena witnesses and evidence, would be a better vehicle for an investigation that could lead to criminal charges.

"Part of this investigation must necessarily involve consideration of whether or not the accident could have been prevented," they wrote.

"Inevitably that leads to the question of if the accident were preventable, did the actions of or the failure to act by any party contribute to causing the accident?

"We believe that only a grand jury is qualified to make those judgments."

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