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Old Mining Maps Often Inaccurate

July 29, 2002|NANCY CLEELAND and ABIGAIL GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The near-tragic accident in Pennsylvania illustrates a hazard that coal miners have worried about for years: Maps of many abandoned mines are inaccurate, in part because former operators voraciously excavated beyond their boundaries.

The nine Quecreek miners rescued late Saturday were trapped after drilling into a flooded shaft of the long-closed Saxman mine that was shown on their maps to be at least 200 feet farther along.

On Sunday, officials at the scene said a federal and state investigation into the accident will focus on how mining permits are issued in Pennsylvania and how old mining maps are evaluated.

Old, sometimes faulty maps are an important focus, especially because 10,000 or so mine maps are archived by Pennsylvania alone, some hand-drawn and some made more than 100 years ago.

A former worker in the Saxman mine, which was closed in 1963, recalled a frenzy of activity as the mine was being shut down four decades ago that was not reflected in official maps.

"They wanted to get as much coal as they could on that last day

Mining operations are required by law to leave a 200-foot barrier at the end of a mine to protect against accidents. But Jim Lamont, international safety representative for the United Mine Workers of America, said those rules were routinely ignored before 1969, when federal scrutiny of mines was increased.

"In the old days, there wasn't the accountability there is now," Lamont said. "You would come up to that boundary line and say, 'Hey, no one's going to know. Let's just go a little farther.' "

Because old maps are notoriously inaccurate, some large mining companies use costly sensors to detect when a drill is about to hit dead space. But smaller outfits such as Black Wolf Coal Co., which operates the Quecreek mine and has 65 employees, typically can't afford the equipment, Lamont said.

Instead, miners approaching an abandoned shaft may drill small test holes before making a large cut, Lamont said. It is unclear whether the trapped miners, who were 240 feet below the surface when the wall was breached, took such precautions.

The flooded mine will be drained to allow for a full investigation, said Scott Roberts, deputy secretary of environmental protection in Pennsylvania. "We want to be sure this doesn't happen again," he said.

Roberts acknowledged the problem of inaccurate maps, saying, "The coal industry is replete with stories of people buying coal twice."

Dave D. Lauriski, U.S. assistant secretary of Labor for mining safety and health, said the federal government would "take a very close look" at how mapping problems may have contributed to the accident.

The miners union has lobbied for three years for federal funding to improve the mapping of old mines, Lamont said. In the last two years, similar accidents occurred in Kentucky and Virginia, but no fatalities resulted.

Though still one of the most dangerous jobs in America, coal mining has become far safer in recent decades, thanks to a combination of enforcement and improvements in technology that shift the most onerous work to machines.

Although the total number of coal mining injuries and fatalities has decreased dramatically in the last century, the number of mining deaths has risen each year since 1998, from 29 deaths that year to 42 in 2001, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the National Mining Assn.

Lauriski noted in recent testimony to Congress that small mining operations were twice as dangerous as larger mines.

In 2001, the number of coal miners in the United States shrank to about a tenth of what it was, from just fewer than 705,000 in 1923 to 71,500 miners last year, according to government and industry figures. But production doubled, from 564.6 million short tons of coal in 1923 to 1,121.3 million in 2001.

During the last two decades, the coal industry has been consolidated into a leaner and more productive operation, dominated by fewer, larger corporations.

At the same time, production increasingly shifted from the Appalachian region to the West.

Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren in Somerset, Pa., contributed to this report.

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