DEP Quecreek Report

By: Bill Reid
Managing Editor


    The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has released its final investigative report on the near catastrophe and successful rescue at Quecreek Mine and recommended some of the most significant and sweeping changes in decades to Pennsylvania’s mine safety laws. The 52-page report finds the accident occurred because of maps that inaccurately depicted mine workings and underscored the need for the state to improve deficient map verification methods and revamp mine permitting processes.
    DEP has already undertaken a number of initiatives to enhance mine safety since the July 2002 incident brought worldwide attention to Somerset County. Within the final report are 26 recommendations based on conclusions drawn from the 12-month investigation.
    Central legislative recommendations include enabling the department to issues regulations that keep up with technology in mining, bringing mine safety laws in line with all other safety laws, enabling DEP to hold the owner responsible for safety in the mines and giving department mine safety personnel a key seat at the permitting table.
    The investigation found that maps provided to DEP as part of the permitting process for Quecreek Mine No. 1 were inaccurate. Because the availability of a certified final map was not a requirement for permit approval, the Department issued the permit in 1998, and mining proceeded according to normal procedure. Investigators have also determined that maps submitted by the mining company in support of the permit application and deep mine safety approvals violated accuracy requirements, as evidenced by the breach. The Department halted mining activities and insisted that all violations be corrected prior to allowing the mine to resume operations in November 2002. Quecreek Mining Co. had to perform test drilling to check for Harrison No. 2 Mine workings and then submit corrected maps.
    Although more recent maps were located during the investigation, it is not certain that even the best of these maps shows the full extent and location of the abandoned Harrison No. 2 mine workings. A “true complete and correct map and survey of all the excavations made” in the Harrison No. 2 mine, as required by law, was not uncovered during the investigation, nor was any evidence showing that such a map ever existed. Investigators did not uncover evidence that the mine operator or superintendent knew the map’s inaccurately depicted the location and extent of the Harrison No. 2 Mine workings.


    Nine miners working in Quecreek Mine No. 1 thinking they were a safe distance from mine voids, accidentally broke through to the abandoned Saxman Coal & Coke Co.’s Harrison No. 2 Mine at approximately 8:50 p.m. July 24, 2002 flooding Quecreek and trapping the nine miners for nearly 78 hours.
    The Department also has cataloged mine maps in its repositories, electronically scanning some 3,900 maps, and designed a database for entering mine production data collected from hard copy mining reports over the last 130 years to enable searches that will allow comparisons with known maps to get a more accurate picture of mine voids and mine workings.
    Part of that effort includes taking steps to insure that DEP mine inspectors who leave the department turn in all department maps and materials. Investigators located a map on a portion of the Harrison No. 2 Mine at the Windber Coal Heritage Center. The map shows more extensive workings than any other map, including workings in the immediate vicinity where the Quecreek breakthrough occurred. The map was donated to the center by the descendants of a deceased former state mine inspector. 
    The investigative report also concludes there were no warning signs immediately prior to the accident to forecast its imminence. A hydro geologic study found no evidence that there would have been any observable warning signs on a pending inundation. The study found that Quecreek Mine was in a wet setting, as several groundwater aquifers overlaid the mine area.
    The report also found there was confusion within DEP concerning the interpretation and scope of section 236 of the Bituminous Coal Mine Act. DEP is immediately commencing a policy review process with stakeholders to provide needed clarity and the procedures must be revamped to improve the permit review and map verification processes. 
    The Commission on Abandoned Mine Voids and Mine Safety was formed by Governor Schweiker the day after the successful rescue and all but one of the commission’s 48 recommendations were put in place. Schweiker rejected a recommendation to determine “mine barriers” between active mines and adjacent abandoned mines on a mine by mine basis in favor of retaining his earlier decision made in August of 2002 to increase the safety barriers between active bituminous mines and abandoned mines to 500 feet from the previous 200 feet.
    The investigation also shows that legislative changes to the Mine Safety laws are imperative. Pennsylvania’s mine safety statutes were written in the late 19th century and last updated in 1961. Among the other recommendations in the report are:
• Amend Pennsylvania’s outdated mine safety statutes authorizing DEP to promulgate regulations that keep pace with technology and permit enforcement actions against mine operators who violate mine safety standards.
• Make violations of the mining laws part of the compliance record examined by the Department in granting new or revised deep mine permits, and allow the department to assess monetary penalties for violations of the Act. 
• Implement a more rigorous and coordinated permit review procedure, including the review of production records.
• A more rigorous review of maps is also needed to ensure that features are accurately depicted on maps submitted to the department.
• Establish a method to be used when assembling, presenting, and evaluating information regarding abandoned mines and require a specific evaluation of the “credibility of the information on the extent of adjacent abandoned mine workings.”
• Limit mining for permit applicants who cannot demonstrate that maps of adjacent abandoned mines are reliable and credible until the applicant satisfactorily demonstrates by other methods the location and extent of adjacent abandoned mine voids.. cl



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