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Fisher to inspect Quecreek mine

Sunday, August 04, 2002

By Bill Heltzel, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Attorney General Mike Fisher plans to inspect Quecreek Mine today and to begin gathering information about why the Somerset County mine flooded and trapped nine miners 10 days ago.

Fisher declined to characterize his inquiry as a criminal investigation or as preparation for a grand jury.

Two state lawmakers have asked Fisher by letter to convene a grand jury to consider whether the state Department of Environmental Protection or Black Wolf Coal Co. acted criminally. Reps. David Levdansky, D-Forward, and Daniel Surra, D-Elk, said they were prompted by reports that the DEP and Black Wolf took no extra precautions although they knew that the adjacent Saxman Mine contained mined areas that had not been mapped.

Black Wolf reportedly relied on 50-year-old DEP maps that showed Saxman Mine ending 300 feet from the new mine's boundary, and drilled no holes to probe for mine voids. On July 24, Black Wolf miners breached the flooded, abandoned Saxman Mine. An estimated 50 million gallons of water poured into Quecreek Mine and trapped nine men 240 feet underground for 78 hours.

Fisher said he has not yet seen the lawmakers' letter. But yesterday he said their request for a grand jury is premature.

"When you say an attorney general 'investigates,' that carries a connotation of criminality," he said. "Based on what we know on this date, I can't say that."

He said he will be assisted at the mine today by an agent in his environmental crime section.

Fisher said he wants to know who prepared the DEP maps, what information was available when they were made and what steps were taken to update them. He said his preliminary inquiry will take a few weeks. Then, if there is evidence of wrongdoing by state employees or Black Wolf, a formal investigation would begin.

Results of a formal probe could then be submitted to a grand jury. He said the power to subpoena witnesses and evidence can be a useful tool when witnesses are uncooperative. If there is no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, he said, the grand jury might be used to recommend corrections designed to prevent another incident.

"You don't submit to a grand jury until you need that resource," Fisher said. "We're not there yet, and I don't know if we will ever get there, but we're beginning to take steps."

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