Nine trapped in Pennsylvania coal mine

By David Walsh
26 July 2002

Nine coal miners remained trapped underground in southwest Pennsylvania after they accidentally drilled into an abandoned mine shaft July 24 that was flooded with water. Rescue workers lowered a six-inch drill into the Quecreek Mine near Somerset (55 miles southeast of Pittsburgh) early Thursday morning, and the miners could be heard tapping on the pipe. “We answered them and they answered back,” said Joseph Sbaffoni, Pennsylvania’s deep mine safety chief.

The accident occurred around 9 pm on Wednesday when the miners ruptured the old mine shaft, last worked in the 1950s and unmarked on maps, which was filled with water. The first crew was able to warn another team of miners working behind them, who waded to safety in water up to their necks.

The trapped workers are apparently huddled in an area three feet high by 12 feet wide, about 300 feet below ground and 8,000 feet from the mine’s entrance. Rescuers were pumping air through the 6-inch hole in an effort to sustain the air pocket. They are planning to bring in a larger drilling rig to bore a 36-inch wide hole, but that process, once drilling begins, could take 18 hours.

A spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection observed, “It is a race against time because the water is still filling [the mine].” She spoke of “a glimmer of hope.”

About 80 family members of the miners gathered inside a fire hall in Sipesville, some two miles from the mine. The Quecreek Mine is located about 10 miles northwest of the site where hijacked Flight 93 crashed during last year’s September 11 terrorist attack.

The facility, operated by Black Wolf Coal Company and employing about 40 workers, has only been in operation a year and has already witnessed two accidents. In the first, last October 17, a 40-by-30 section of roof caved in. No one was injured in that incident.

A miner from Black Wolf Coal told the Associated Press, “Those are my brothers down there. God help them. Nobody knows what’s going on.”

On September 23, 2001, 13 miners were killed as the result of two gas explosions at the Jim Walter Resources Blue Creek No. 5 Mine in Brookwood, Alabama. Most of the victims were miners who refused to evacuate and rushed to help other workers after the first explosion. The Brookwood accident was the worst since 27 miners died in Orangeville, Utah in 1984.

Despite an average annual loss of 5.6 percent in the number of US coal miners during the 1990s (from 120,602 in 1991 to 71,522 in 2000), the total number of fatalities has increased over the past several years: 29 deaths in 1998, 35 in 1999, 38 in 2000 and 42 last year. As of July 11, 17 miners had died in 2002.

The Bush administration’s policy of gutting health and safety regulations, already extremely limited, can only contribute to the death toll.

The individual who took over head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in May 2001, David Lauriski, is a trusted defender of mining industry interests. He had served as general manager for the Energy West Mining Co. in Huntington, Utah, and was director of health, safety and environmental affairs at Interwest Mining in Salt Lake City. He also worked as industrial relations manager, safety director and safety engineer at Kaiser Steel Corp.’s Sunnyside mine.

According to an official Labor Department biography, “The US mining industry selected Lauriski to represent its interests in Geneva, Switzerland, at the International Labor Organization during development of worldwide mine health and safety standards.” Prior to his nomination by Bush to his present post, Lauriski was the president of Lauriski and Associates, a consulting firm, and served as chairman of the Utah Board of Oil, Gas, and Mining and as a board member of the Utah Mining Association (UMA). When he was nominated, the UMA called him “an excellent choice for the Bush administration.”

Lauriski has lived up to the industry’s expectations. During Senate hearings last year on the tragedy in Libby, Montana, where asbestos from a vermiculite mine has been linked to some 200 deaths, Lauriski declared that he did not believe any new workplace regulation was necessary to protect workers, particularly miners, from the risk of getting ill from asbestos.

In February 2002, Lauriski met with industry representatives and spoke about efforts to “change the culture” within MSHA, i.e., make it more sympathetic to business concerns. Those responsible for enforcing agency standards would no longer be termed “inspectors,” for example, but now would be known as “safety and health compliance specialists.” The expression favored by Bush administration officials, “compliance assistance,” involves “a collaborative approach” between industry representatives and regulatory agency staff, rather than any serious effort at enforcement.

In remarks to a Senate committee earlier this month, Lauriski acknowledged, “This year, the number of fatalities and the non-fatal injury rates [in the mining industry] began to rise compared to the same time last year. January was especially disappointing and we knew that we had to keep that month’s increase in fatalities from becoming a trend.” He went on to assert that “the vast majority of mine operators want to comply [with government directives] but are often hampered by the volume and complexity of the regulations.”