Remembering the near-disaster at Quecreek

July 25, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

Ten years ago this week, nine Pennsylvania coal miners nearly died when the mine where they worked accidentally drilled into a nearby mine tunnel filled with water, flooding their own operation and setting off a furious rescue effort that ended successfully when the miners were all pulled to safety in that bright yellow capsule.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review ran a commemorative piece that started out like this:

Harry Mayhugh was operating a coal scoop at Quecreek Mine the morning of July 24, 2002, when he heard a “huge” noise.

Thomas Foy, his father-in-law, came and told him they had to leave; they had cut into an old mine. Foy told Mayhugh to get the other miners so they could “get the heck out of here.”

Fourteen men were working in the mine that morning when a wall of cold water rushed in from an adjacent, abandoned mine.

Five of the crew – Barry Carlson, Douglas Custer, Dave and Ryan Petree, and Lawrence Summerville – ran for their lives. They were the lucky ones.

Nine others – Foy, Mayhugh, Randy Fogle, John Unger, John Phillippi, Dennis Hall, Robert Pugh Jr., Mark Popernack and Ron Hileman – could not escape the tide of 72 million gallons of water, powerful enough to sweep away tons of equipment that blocked escape routes.

The Post-Gazette has a collection of its Quecreek stories online here, and the P-G also published an op-ed commentary from MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin called Commemorating Quecreek, 10 years later: We’ve learned a lot since those miners were lifted to safety.  It includes some personal memories and thoughts like this:

In my 32 years with MSHA, I have not always seen a mine emergency end so positively. I was proud of my counterparts within MSHA and Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, as well as the local first responders, Enlow Fork’s mine rescue team, the U.S. Navy and volunteers with the Red Cross and Salvation Army. Everyone pulled together, prayed together and, ultimately, celebrated together.

In recent years, the mining industry has been marked by tragedy more than celebration. Not a day goes by that I am not reminded of the critical role MSHA and mine operators play in maintaining a safe and healthy work environment.

And it has some MSHA PR stuff like this:

Following the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in April 2010 that claimed the lives of 29 miners, MSHA instituted a program targeting mines with the most troubling compliance records. Since then, we have carried out 452 targeted “impact” inspections and issued 8,949 violations.

These efforts are paying off. Overall compliance is improving at mines after we inspect them. Violations per inspection hour are down 13 percent after mines receive an impact inspection, significant and substantial violation rates are down 21 percent, and actions requiring miners be withdrawn from a mine are down 43 percent.

Improvements are also occurring in the industry as a whole. In 2011, MSHA inspected about 14,170 mines and issued 157,613 citations and orders. This number is down from 2010, when MSHA issued 170,909 citations and orders.

We’ve also made significant progress in mine rescue response and our command and control capabilities. In the 10 years since the Quecreek rescue, technology has advanced in amazing ways. MSHA now has a robot that can explore underground areas that may be too dangerous for rescuers. Our new command center vehicle will soon be equipped with a smart board system that enables personnel on the surface to communicate in real time with rescue teams as they travel underground.

MSHA is touting its participation in this week’s commemoration ceremonies up in Pennsylvania, including the ribbon cutting at a new visitor center.  There are numerous media availabilities.

I hope some of the local media who attend ask some good questions about what kinds of reforms have — and most importantly haven’t — taken place over the last decade to try to avoid a repeat of the near-disaster at Quecreek.  As I wrote in a previous Quecreek post:

It’s also worth noting that Quecreek made a hero out of then-MSHA chief Dave Lauriski (below,  helping then-Pa. Gov. Mark Schweiker carry one of the rescued miners).

As I wrote in a piece for The Washington Monthly,  Lauriski was at the time under fire for actions that appeared — rightly so, it turned out — to be the start of a Bush administration effort to back off tough safety and health enforcement in the coal industry. But Quecreek made him a hero, and media scrutiny and congressional investigations went away — until the Sago Mine in West Virginia blew up on Jan. 2, 2006.

We know now that Lauriski, then-Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and the Bush administration gutted MSHA, setting the stage for the disasters that followed, not only at Sago, but at Aracoma, Kentucky Darby, Crandall Canyon and Upper Big Branch. Not only did they slash MSHA’s budget and staff, but they pushed their “compliance assistance,” industry-friendly approach to enforcement, something that independent reviewers have pinpointed as a major cause of the deaths that followed Quecreek.

More specifically, maybe the media will ask current MSHA chief Joe Main why he hasn’t followed up on a rule change that he argued was absolutely necessary after Quecreek.

Remember that an investigation by the MSHA  blamed the flood — called a mine inundation — on the use of an undated and uncertified map that did not show the full extend of mining at an adjacent operation:

The primary cause of the water inundation was the use of anundated and uncertified mine map of the Harrison No. 2 mine thatdid not show the complete and final mine workings. Using thismap led to an inaccurate depiction of the Harrison No. 2 mineworkings on the Quecreek #1 mine map required by the Mine Safetyand Health Administration and on the certified mine map submittedto the State of Pennsylvania during the permitting process. The root cause of the accident was the unavailability of a certifiedfinal mine map for Harrison No. 2 mine in the State ofPennsylvania’s mine map repository.

This led to much of the focus after Quecreek  being on improving the availability and accuracy of mine maps. But MSHA critics and mine safety advocates argued at the time that the real answer was for federal officials to strengthen their regulations on test drilling of adjacent areas during underground mining. Among the most vocal of these MSHA critics at the time? That’s right, Joe Main, who was then the chief safety and health officer of the United Mine Workers union.

About three months after Quecreek, I attended an MSHA meeting here in Charleston about the then-hot issue of mine inundations, and reported this:

Joe Main, safety director for the United Mine Workers union, criticized MSHA’s decision to focus on mine map accuracy at Tuesday’s symposium.

“Mapping is a diversion,” Main said. He said that the real issue is the need for MSHA to strengthen its regulations on test drilling of adjacent areas during underground mining.

On July 31, three days after the Quecreek rescue, Main wrote to Lauriski to urge such an action. MSHA has never replied.

Currently, MSHA rules require test drilling of adjacent areas whenever an active mine is within 200 feet of where a map shows an abandoned mine to be located.

“There is a clear need to redo the rule,” Main said. “We are waiting for some action from MSHA on that.”

In 1996, when Davitt McAteer was in charge of MSHA, he rewrote those rules to require drilling of both sides of advancing mine work areas, instead of just one side. Main and the UMWA advocated for more, asking that the distance drilling was required be extended to 500 feet. MSHA refused. And it was certainly no surprise that Lauriski and the Bush administration did nothing about this recommendation.

Since Joe Main took over at MSHA under the Obama administration, I don’t recall him ever talking about this particular rule, and he certainly hasn’t proposed the sorts of changes he said there was a clear need to make. I’ve asked MSHA about this, and I’ll update this post if they respond. In the meantime, remember what Kevin Stricklin said in his Post-Gazette commentary:

 … There is one thing we’ve known all along, and that doesn’t change: Mine disasters are preventable, and miners deserve to return home to their loved ones after every shift.

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