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DEP halts pumping from mine

Water's high iron content forces cleanup slowdown

Saturday, August 03, 2002

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The state Department of Environmental Protection has shut down pumps draining water at the Quecreek Mine rescue site, temporarily slowing the cleanup and lengthening the time until investigators can enter the mine.

The pumps, located in a cornfield, were stopped Thursday afternoon when the DEP found excessive amounts of iron in the water pumped out of the mine and flowing into Quemahoning Creek. Pumps at the mine entrance are continuing to operate.

Quecreek Mine officials yesterday agreed to start building new treatment ponds near the rescue and ventilation holes. The pond construction will take three to four days, after which they can resume pumping with the submersible pumps.

"We had to stop all the pumps in the cornfields until we can get the water from those pipes treated," said Dave Rebuck, president and superintendent of Black Wolf Mining Co., which operates Quecreek Mine. "The pumping is going much slower and the water level in the mine has not decreased any at all since we shut down those pumps."

In fact, the DEP said the water level in Quecreek Mine has risen more than 5 feet since the submersible pumps were turned off.

Prior to the shutdown of the cornfield pumps, water was being removed from the mine at a rate of 11,000 gallons per minute.

"We're very happy Quecreek has agreed to build the new treatment ponds, and, as a result, there will not be any significant delay in the investigation," said Karl Lasher, a DEP spokesman.

Approximately 50 million gallons of water from the adjacent and long-idled Saxman Mine inundated the Quecreek Mine on July 24, trapping nine miners for 77 hours until their dramatic rescue last Sunday morning.

Black Wolf is continuing to pump water out of the mine entrances where the level -- once as high as the top of an 18-foot-tall garage door outside the mine entrances -- has receded back into the mine.

But it is allowed to pump out only as much as it can treat in the operation's three existing treatment ponds.

Rebuck, who held a news conference yesterday morning on a rocky road between the mine entrance and three iron-orange treatment ponds, said investigators from the state Office of Deep Mine Safety and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration were on site, reviewing maps and interviewing miners.

"I can't say when they'll be able to get into the mine," he said. "We're setting additional discharge lines to pump water out to our treatment ponds, but it may take a little longer before we can get to the point where they can get in and do their investigation."

He repeated his earlier estimate that it will take several weeks to pump out the mine enough so that investigators can reach the section where the miners accidentally broke through the barrier between the mines, 8,000 feet from the entrance.

As he spoke, a crew of at least six miners was pushing lengths of yellow pipe into one of the four mine entrance portals to hook up additional pumps.

He said all of the mine's 63 employees -- save for the nine trapped miners who were rescued -- are back at work on the mine cleanup seven days a week, three shifts a day.

He said he intends to reopen the mine once the cleanup and the investigation are completed, but didn't know how long either will take.

"My sole source of revenue is mining and I won't restart production here again until the investigation is complete," Rebuck said. "So I hope they can get in quickly and find out what went wrong so it won't happen again."

He said he was happy to hear that the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration will form a task force to examine the accuracy of mine maps and convene a meeting of government, industry and academic representatives to determine how to accurately detail the boundaries of closed mines.

John Weir, a Black Wolf spokesman, said the rescue proved that the new mining maps were accurate because surveyors were able to pinpoint where the miners were trapped, but the same can't be said for the old mining maps.

"Drilling in advance of the mining won't help. There's really no way to know where the old mines end," Weir said. "But this set a precedent. The guys will do some different stuff -- increase the distance between the mines maybe."

He said mining probably won't restart in the area where miners broke through to the Saxman Mine.

"I would say they would back up and mine elsewhere," he said. "You don't go in and let the same dog bite you twice."

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