Pennsylvania Releases Final Quecreek Mine Accident Report

July 29, 2003
Nearly a year to the day nine miners were rescued from the Quecreek Mine, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary Kathleen A. McGinty released a final investigative report on the near catastrophe 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 underscores the need for the state to improve deficient map verification methods and revamp mine permitting processes.

"The moment those nine miners were pulled to safety last year by a determined rescue team, the department began an exhaustive investigation not only to find out what happened at Quecreek Mine but to ensure the highest safety standards are in place in Pennsylvania," said McGinty. "DEP looked at every detail of this accident to draw credible conclusions of fact about what happened and why, and we used everything we learned to put together a series of recommendations that will enhance safety for the Commonwealth's miners."

DEP already has undertaken a number of initiatives to enhance mine safety since the July 2002 incident brought worldwide attention to Somerset County. Among those efforts are digitizing and indexing thousands of mine maps, and requiring mine operators to provide DEP with hard evidence showing the location of mine voids and their distance from active operations.

The department continues to work on implementing regulatory and legislative changes that will address some of the shortcomings that the investigation revealed about the state's outdated mining policies and procedures related to underground mine safety. Within the final report are 26 recommendations based on conclusions drawn from the 12-month investigation.

Central legislative recommendations include enabling the department to issue 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.

"Previously, department safety experts played only a peripheral role in permitting. From now on, safety personnel will be centrally involved, reviewing and signing off on all permits before they can be issued," McGinty vowed.

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 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 maps 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.

Since the accident, DEP issued administrative orders to all bituminous and anthracite mines operating near known abandoned mine voids to provide credible evidence in the form of accurate maps, drilling or other means that they know for certain where the actual mine void is located. Bituminous mine operators now have to provide hard data as to the location of mine boundaries once they reach 500 feet of an abandoned mine void. Anthracite operators have to provide this information at 300 feet. The previous distance for both was 200 feet.

The department also has catalogued mine maps in its repositories, electronically scanning some 3,900 maps. It also has designed a database for entering mine production data collected from hard-copy mining reports over the past 130 years to enable searches that will allow comparisons with known maps to get a more accurate picture of mine voids and mine workings.

DEP is working with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) to establish a central mine map repository and institute procedures to treat the maps as historic resources. The department is immediately modifying its current mine subsidence outreach efforts to include a solicitation to the general public for copies of maps of abandoned mines throughout the state. These historical mine maps currently are scattered among both public and private holders.

Acquiring these mine maps and the information they contain "can make the difference between safety and tragedy in the mines," said McGinty.

All but one of the commission's 48 recommendations were put in place. Former Gov. Mark 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 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. As an example of their outdated nature, existing mine safety laws preclude enforcement actions generally against the owners of mines. A thorough re-write of the statutes should be undertaken with the input of legislators, operators and mine workers.

Among some of the other recommendations:

  • 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 also is 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.

"This report identifies the need for us to do better," McGinty admitted. "The department remains committed to honoring the memory of Quecreek by making sure every miner is safer and more secure as they conduct their business underground."

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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