Working Together for Safety



Joe Sbaffoni

Coal Leader: We are with Joe Sbaffoni, Director of the Bureau of Deep Mine Safety, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Joe, we certainly appreciate you talking to readers of Coal Leader. Tell us if you would about your background, how you got involved in the coal industry?

Joe Sbaffoni: I started in the mining industry back in June of 1970, right after I graduated from high school. I also attended a votech and I had some surveying background at the mine. Republic Steel Corporation, needed a chainman on a surveying crew and that is how I started in the mines. I have been in the mine for the last 33 years. Iíve worked my way up through different positions in the industry: engineering, safety, foreman, mine foreman, superintendent, and in 1984 I was asked to take the position of mine inspector. Then in í88 I was promoted to program manager in Deep Mine Safety and that is the position I held up until this past July when I was promoted to Bureau Director. Since July, I have responsibilities for all underground mining, any kind of work underground, tunneling and so forth, statewide responsibilities for the health and safety of miners. The Bureau of Deep Mine Safety consists of approximately 65 employees. We have offices in Uniontown and in Pottsville and we still have some anthracite mining going on in the Pottsville area. We have a bituminous chief and anthracite chief answering to a bureau director. I report to the Deputy of Mineral Resources Management, Scott Roberts.

Coal Leader: Recently, the DEP Quecreek report was issued and it talked about updating some of the statutes and changing some of the permitting processes. Can you tell us a little bit about that please?

Joe Sbaffoni: Shortly after the Quecreek accident, the Governor appointed a commission that generated a report with quite a few recommendations. Some of these dealt with legislative changes and also, took a look at our permitting process to have Deep Mine Safety more involved to try to identify any kind of situation like that at Quecreek before we issue a permit. Also, the mine investigation report from the state consists of quite a few very similar recommendations, one of which being that we needed to look at our statute that was enacted in 1961. We need to look at updating our act and having the ability to promulgate rules and regulations. So thatís very important.

Coal Leader: The Quecreek incident as you know drew worldwide attention. What are the lessons learned from Quecreek?

Joe Sbaffoni: Well I think Quecreek first of all demonstrated what can happen when everybody comes together and works together. Between MSHA and the Bureau of Deep Mine Safety, we probably had some of the best mining people in the world on that site and I think Quecreek demonstrated what can happen with teamwork and when people come together and everybody works for the same goals. It also demonstrated that mining is still a dangerous profession and that we need to do everything we humanly can to try to prevent people from getting hurt.

Coal Leader: You were very personally involved in Quecreek. I watched you on television until I went up to the pressroom in Somerset. Tell us about your personal involvement in Quecreek and the people, Joe.

Joe Sbaffoni: The people were great from that first call on Wednesday evening. I received the call the inundation happened at ten minutes Ďtil 9 right around 9:30 from my supervisor who told me that some miners were missing. I immediately called up to the mine and talked to the owner Dave Rebuck and confirmed that nine guys had escaped and nine were trapped and they werenít going to be able to get out because the area out by where they were working was already filled with water. We immediately started putting plans together and I recommended to Dave to get surveyors out, get drillers out, get a hole dug as soon as we could up in that face area. Knowing the layout of the mine, I asked for all the elevations. I drew that information on a piece of paper at home and knew those guys would try to escape. They would have to go right back where they came from and if anybody survived that is where we would locate them. From that point on throughout that night, I was involved with the critical decisions. The next day I got involved with Secretary Hess and then the Governor, briefing them, going from the media center to the drill site and to the families, just keeping involved with the people that I had on the drill site and the rescue site. 

Coal Leader: It was a wonderful outcome wasnít it?

Joe Sbaffoni: There was a lot of drama throughout the entire rescue and there was a lot of uncertainty. We knew somebody was down there and we tried to give them good air to breathe and to create that air pocket. As it turns out, the miners probably should have been in about 15 feet of water and it was completely dry where they were so the air pocket theory worked. But with the bit breaking, as time went on everybody started to get some doubts and concerns. But we had a good plan and we implanted it and we were going to stick to it. At the end, when we were finally able to communicate with them again, found out that all nine were there and alive, and it was pretty powerful.

Coal Leader: Tell us some of the challenges in providing safety and health in Pennsylvania and some of the things that you are doing.

Joe Sbaffoni: One of the big focuses right away was on abandoned mines and mapping. Quecreek demonstrated that there was a problem with the mapping. Everybody thought they were working with up-to-date maps and that wasnít the case. Right after Quecreek occurred, we immediately looked at all our other active operations and tried to identify potential problems. We put in place a better line of communications between Deep Mine Safety and the permitting arm of DEP and also implemented further requirements. As far as the inundation problem, we are looking at it very hard. If we are not satisfied that the information that is provided is credible and that we can rely on it, then we are going to require additional precautions to be taken and in most cases it will require test drilling.

Coal Leader: Quecreek brought greater attention once again to coal mining. How do you see the future of coal?

Joe Sbaffoni: I donít think a lot of people realize throughout the country that people still go underground and mine coal. Over 50% of our electricity comes from coal. I think that the technology is there for coal to be burned cleanly. Coalís taken care of a couple wars, an industrial revolution, and without coal I donít know where this country would be. So I think the future has to be good. I think we need to use the technologies that are available and it would be nice if the country would adopt a national energy policy where we would use coal for electricity, gas for heating, oil for transportation, and extend the life of gas and oil and maybe not be as dependant on foreign entities. If we would do that, we could put a lot of people to work in this country with good paying jobs. Jobs that can sustain families while also limiting our dependence on countries overseas.

Coal Leader: Well we would like to wish you continued success as Bureau Director of Deep Mine Safety in providing safety and health particularly in Pennsylvania. Thank you very much for talking to readers of Coal Leader newspaper.

Joe Sbaffoni: We are having this interview here at the National Mine Rescue Contest. In Pennsylvania we have state contests and we have mine emergency response drills. We donít have as many problems as we have had in years past when it comes to emergency responses or disasters but we have to be prepared. Sometimes in this business we really donít know how many accidents we prevent. Usually we only hear the negatives, when something bad happens. Quecreek was one of those times when it emphasized that good comes out of what we do. Weíll never know how many lives we save, but I feel proud of everything that we do in PA very proud of all the people that work in Pennsylvania and our affiliation with MSHA. We have a lot of dedicated people looking out to make sure that that miner goes home safely at the end of the day. That is what it is all about.

Coal Leader: Once again Joe, thank you very much indeed.

Joe Sbaffoni: Youíre welcome.



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