Chao-Norton Letter

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Chao-Norton Letter  Posted: July 19, 2003
After the Martin County Coal Impoundment collapse into underground works, and the Quecreek, Pennsylvania underground mine crisis caused by a breakthrough of an active underground mine into flooded workings, KRC reviewed the Mine Safety and Health Administration files for Districts 6 and 7 and found that breakthroughs have occurred in a number of cases in recent years, at times threatening miners and causing disruption of employment and loss of equipment. Some themes emerge for the causes of these accidents, including inadequate advance drilling, and inaccurate mine maps submitted by company engineers.

Both MSHA and the federal Office of Surface Mining have the tools to reduce the potential for future breakthroughs, yet do not require new mines to adequately investigate the possibility of old works nor to determine with accuracy the extent and condition of those works. Miners in the workplace and downstream communities have a right to be free of the fear of future coal waste impoundment releases and old mine breakthroughs, and KRC has outlined a number of steps that should be taken to reduce that risk and make new mines more accountable.

The letter is below.

July 4, 2003

Ms. Elaine Chao

Secretary, Department of Labor

S2018 Frances Perkins Building

200 Constitution Avenue NW Washington, D.C. 20210


Ms. Gale Norton

Secretary, Department of the Interior

6151 Main Building

1849 C Street NW Washington, D.C. 20240



Dear Secretaries Chao and Norton:


I am writing to urge your agencies to commit to an aggressive and effective program to reduce the risks of inadvertent breakthroughs of active mines and coal waste impoundments into abandoned mine workings.


The catastrophic release of slurried waste from the Martin County Coal Co. Big Branch Impoundment in October 2001 captured the public attention for a brief time, as did the near-tragic Quecreek mine flooding incident. Underlying both incidents was a common problem ? current mine-related activities inadvertently intercepting former mine workings that were inaccurately mapped.


While a significant factor in the October, 2001 slurry release was the failure of the company to have accurately identified the extent of underground workings and an overstatement of the thickness and competence of the outcrop barrier between the mine void and the land surface, MSHA has yet to commit to an aggressive and effective program to respond to the 250 or so other cases of coal waste impoundments overlying or adjacent to underground mine workings, acknowledged by the agency as having the potential for breakthroughs into active or abandoned workings.


KRC has reviewed the incidents of mine breakthroughs into abandoned workings, and provides a summary of our findings and a series of recommendations intended to improve protection of miners and the public from the risks of inadvertent breakthroughs into underground mine works.


KRC has had an abiding interest in these issues, since becoming aware of the risks of coal waste impoundments first with the tragic disaster at

Buffalo Creek, and more recently, with the needless and tragic death of Nellie Ball Woolum, a friend and client of the Council's Director, due to the catastrophic failure of a coal refuse impoundment structure in Ages, Kentucky. KRC has tracked closely the regulatory and environmental issues associated with the catastrophic release from the Martin County Coal Co. Big Branch Impoundment. KRC has issued two reports, a Preliminary Analysis of the Martin County Coal Waste Spill, and Papering Over The Problems: The Failure Of MSHA's Management To Fully Account For The Causes Of The Martin County Coal Co. Slurry Release, both of which are available on the Council's website at


Included in those reports were a number of recommendations directed at minimizing the potential for future catastrophic releases from slurry impoundments constructed of and impounding coal processing wastes. Those recommendations are reprinted and updated below.


The direct and indirect costs to the company, the downstream property owners, communities that utilized impacted streams for water supplies, and to the natural resources, resulting from the catastrophic release from the Martin County Coal impoundment were substantial. The damage inflicted was all the more regrettable because it was entirely avoidable. There exist a number of alternative approaches and technologies for the processing of coal and the management of coal processing wastes, yet coal companies are not routinely required to investigate and select alternatives that pose the least risk of danger to public and miner safety and least environmental risk. Additionally, there exist the technological tools for better identifying the existence and precise location of former underground mine workings, yet those tools are not routinely required to be employed in a manner sufficient to assure identification of the location and condition of former workings relative to active mines and impoundments.


Convenience and cost should never be allowed to trump public and mine safety and environmental protection. Yet regulatory agencies seem reluctant to impose as a routine matter those reasonable diagnostic and predictive techniques that are available to raise the level of confidence that new mines and mine waste impoundments will not encounter former workings. Periodic releases and failures of waste structures are accepted as a necessary price of a coal economy. Until MSHA commits to requiring that for existing and proposed coal waste impoundments, where there exists a possibility of existing underground mine workings, that a full geotechnical investigation of those areas beneath and adjacent to the proposed impoundment will be conducted, MSHA will fall short of a passing grade on learning from the harsh lessons taught by past impoundment pool breakthroughs.


Concerning the management of coal processing wastes, there are a number of measures that should be taken to improve accountability:


1. The MSHA Inventory of Coal Waste Impoundments, which categorized impoundments for their potential inundation and other hazards based on maps supplied by companies and by visual observation, should be validated by requiring for all existing coal waste impoundments that operators either provide existing drill logs and other geophysical data or to conduct sufficient drilling to document the actual extent of past mining activities within the impoundment basin and adjacent areas.


Ample evidence exists to question the accuracy of older mine maps, and a categorization based on proximity to former works where neither accurate elevation, nor current condition or precise areal extent is available, raises questions regarding the level of confidence that the resulting categorization should be accorded. Existing impoundments should be reviewed by MSHA utilizing site-specific drilling and other geophysical data provided by the mine operator, and closure of the impoundments required where there is any potential for catastrophic failure due to dam breach or pool breakthrough due to subsidence, outcrop failure or earthquake.


2. Clarify surface mining permit forms to demand more accurate site-specific characterization of the proposed impoundment basin area. Revise forms and procedures to assure that coal waste disposal permits ask clearly and specifically the identity and location of all known underground workings. At least twice in the history of the permitting of the Martin County impoundment, the applications indicated that no underground mine workings existed beneath the permit area.


3. For any new impoundments, where there are recoverable seams of coal located adjacent to the impoundment pool or beneath the pool or foundation, OSM and MSHA should require geophysical investigation and core drilling to be advanced to below the depth of any merchantable seams to assure that the extent and condition of prior underground mine workings is identified in the foundation and pool area and adjacent areas.

4. No new embankment coal slurry impoundments of high or moderate risk classification should be constructed. Embankment impoundments should be limited to locations where the impoundment is classified at the lowest hazard classification for both embankment breach and other failure mechanisms (such as subsidence and earthquake hazard), and only where they do not impound or fill waters of the United States.

5. An alternatives analysis should be required prior to approval of any coal waste impoundment. Alternative technology should be employed in all cases where such alternatives are practicable, to manage and dispose of the coal fines, such as compacted dry coal refuse banks, wet or pneumatic backstowing, incised ponds, or technologies. Underground injection of coal slurry should be explored as an option for coal waste disposal only where appropriate and after coordination with USEPA Region IV and MSHA to assure that there are no adverse effects to public or miner safety and that underground sources of drinking water. Use of controlled backstowing for waste disposal and subsidence control should be evaluated in mine designs.

6. Any coal waste impoundment should be required to be bonded and insured at the full cost of reclamation, based on the reasonable worst-case analysis of catastrophic failure of the impoundment. Assessing the true impact of the failure of the impoundment, and requiring bonding commensurate with the hazard classification of the impoundment, creates accountability for the potential environmental and public consequences and better reflects and internalizes the full cost of the operator's choice of disposal method.

7. Existing regulatory authority possessed by both MSHA and the state regulatory agency under SMCRA should be employed to improve review and control of these structures. While the NAS study let the agencies off the hook by calling for new regulations as the solution, existing regulations properly administered provide ample authority to vastly improve permit review pending any regulatory revisions. Among those obligations that can be imposed under existing regulation:

i. A full multi-path analysis of the mechanisms and risks of failure of the impoundment structure and pool into underground workings from seismic events, outcrop barrier failure, subsidence, and other mechanisms, based on actual data.

ii. The existing requirement to conduct a probable hydrologic consequences determination and cumulative hydrologic impact analysis should be properly implemented in order to demand information and analysis of the impacts of impoundment failure. In the case of the MCCC release, such information was never provided or demanded even though such a failure had already occurred on a lesser scale in 1994 and the state permit reviewer had specifically asked that the applicant address the risks and effects of another breakthrough.

iii. For all existing coal waste embankment impoundments, mid-term reviews of the state mining permits should be conducted promptly and the probable hydrologic consequences determination and hazards assessment should be required to be resubmitted to consider the worst-case failure scenarios, and to require reduction of hazards, alternative management approaches, and revised bonding sufficient to fully fund reclamation and repair of all damages under the worst-case failure scenario.

8. The roles of the state and federal agencies in reviewing and approving placement of coal refuse material should be clarified and both coordination and technical review should be strengthened in order to assure protection of the public, of miners on the minesite, and of the environment.

The continued lack of coordination in information-sharing among the agencies is also of concern. The existence of the MSHA study of coal refuse impoundments, which ranked the impoundments by hazard classification associated with underground mining, appears to have been unknown to the state surface mining agency until after the news articles appeared.

It appears that, despite the waste dam failures at Ages, Kentucky in 1981, and in Virginia in the 1990s, that adequate coordination in technical review and alternatives analysis is still not being undertaken.

9. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should enforce the Clean Water Act and its own Section 404(b)(1) regulations to require the operator to demonstrate that avoidance through other locations or approaches is infeasible, and then to require appropriate compensatory mitigation.

10. The Kentucky General Assembly should eliminate the no more stringent than shackle that ties Kentucky to the bottom rung of the ladder of environmental and public protection, and forces the state agency to follow rather than lead in the area of public protection from risks associated with coal waste disposal. Our public policy should not be doing the bare minimum, but doing what is right for the public and our environment.

It is important to maintain a clear delineation of responsibility and accountability. Contrary to the NAS Report conclusion, the responsibility for safe location, operation, maintenance and closure of any impoundment is not a "shared" responsibility. It is a moral and legal responsibility that rests squarely on the owner and operator of coal waste impoundments and those who design, construct and operate them. The role of government is to demand industry accountability throughout the process for compliance with mine safety and environmental laws. While the failures of state and federal regulators in the area of oversight of coal waste management and disposal have been numerous, fundamental and serial, the responsibility and accountability for proper management of mine wastes rests with the company officials, their engineers and other agents regardless of the performance of those agencies.

The public has an obligation to demand better accountability from the industry, and from government. The coal industry should be required to employ best disposal technologies. Electric utilities, who consume almost all of the output of the coal industry, should be required to assure that their suppliers use the safest approaches and the best technology for handling coal wastes, rather than the cheapest. The costs of doing less must no longer be paid by those who live downhill and downstream from coal waste impoundment sites and processing plants.






One area of particular concern to KRC has been the lack of accuracy in the mapping of previously mined workings. In the case of the Martin County Coal impoundment, the Triad investigative report concluded that inaccurate mapping of the extent of the underground works did not accurately depict mining that had advanced much further towards the outcrop than was reflected on the maps, and that this failure contributed to the impoundment release.


KRC became aware that there had been other unplanned breakthroughs into former mine works, and sought the records to determine the extent of the problem and possible common themes in the accidents. KRC requested files from MSHA's District 6 and 7 offices concerning unplanned breakthroughs of active underground mines into former mine workings.


As reflected by the Martin County release and the Quecreek mine crisis, lack of accurate mine mapping poses a number of health and environmental concerns – most significantly, a safety hazard to underground miners where unplanned encounters of water- or gas-filled workings occur from impounded water in former mine works adjacent to, above or below mining operations, and to the public from sudden catastrophic releases from works (called "blowouts") and gradual releases affecting slope stability.


After reviewing the files, KRC believes that increased and sustained government and private sector effort will be needed to improve prediction and prevention of breakthroughs of active underground mining operations into former abandoned mine works and to assist in emergency response efforts. A review of mine breakthroughs in eastern Kentucky's underground mines reflects that breakthroughs into abandoned, poorly mapped or unmapped underground mine workings are not an isolated occurrence, but rather have occurred in many instances, at times placing miners at risk of loss of life. Additionally, the cost in downtime and loss of equipment from unplanned incursions into former mine works impose costs on workers, companies and the larger economy.


Failure to accurately map the existence and location of such prior mine workings, and failure to properly drill in advance of mining to provide real-time information concerning the existence of such workings, are significant problems that deserve sustained and increased attention from the public and private sectors.


While the nation was riveted to television reports of the heroic rescue operation for the mines trapped by the inundation of an underground mine in Pennsylvania, the near-tragedy in the Quecreek mine was not an isolated incident. Instead, many underground miners in the Appalachian coalfields and elsewhere are daily exposed to undefined risk from water or gas inundation of active mine workings due to accidental breaking through into abandoned underground mine workings. A review of records produced by MSHA's offices in Pikeville and Barbourville, Kentucky, reflect numerous instances in which unplanned breakthroughs into old abandoned mine workings have resulted. While, thankfully, no deaths have occurred, the risk to miners working thousands of feet underground is unreasonably high, and made more so because it is largely preventable if additional and available measures to characterize the extent of underground workings are employed.


While the records available for the various incidents may not reflect the full scope of inundations with gas or water, a snapshot of the records produced is provided below.1


September 17, 1990: Steel Hollow Mining, Inc.


A cut through into an adjacent abandoned mine inundated the entire active mine, resulting in extensive property damage. Acccording to MSHA, "this accident occurred due to management's failure to provide an accurate mine map and follow the projections on their approved ventilation plan. The "certified map provided by the company did not reveal any adjacent abandoned mines within 1000 feet of the active face."


"The accident occurred because management failed to locate the abandoned mine on the certified mine map and mining projections were not adhered to by mine management."



September 29, 1992: Harlan Kentucky Virginia Coal Co. Dayhoit #3 Mine


Inundation with water from cut through into old works. According to agency files "[t]he accident occurred as the direct result of the operator mining into an unmapped abandoned mine."


December 14, 1992: Limousine Coal Company Inc. #3 Mine


While mining the Lower Mason coal seam in Dayhoit, Kentucky, an unmapped area of an abandoned mine was encountered, inundating the mine with water. An adjacent mine, interconnected and separated by seals, was notified.


According to the agency files "[t]he area mined into was shown on the mine map but the location was inaccurate . . . This is the third time this mine has been inundated by water." While test drilling was done for one side of the crosscut, the drilling was not conducted in the area where the breakthrough occurred. "The accident occurred as a direct result of the operator mining into an unmapped area of an abandoned mine."


March 22, 1993: Faith Coal Sales, Inc. #1 White Star Mine


A sudden inrush of 270,000 gallons of water resulted from penetration of "an unmapped area of an old abandoned mine."


According to the mine map, the area being mined was within 200 feet of an adjacent abandoned mine. "The area penetrated was not shown on the certified mine map and adequate test holes were not drilled."


"The accident occurred because the operator was not drilling adequate test holes when approaching old abandoned works and because the mine maps were inaccurate. This resulted in the mine accidentally penetrating an area containing approximately 270,000 gallons of water which inundated the active mine."


April 2, 1993: Del Rio, Incorporated DR #5 Mine


Inundation of water into active workings after cut through into "a previously mined adjacent old abandoned mine of unknown extent. All mining equipment on the 001 section remains submerged under water."


The mine maps indicated abandoned workings were 600 feet from the active mines. Bore holes were not being drilled. 468 million gallons of water inundated the active workings, and MSHA concluded that "[t]he accident occurred as the direct result of the operator mining into an unmapped, abandoned mine."




August 27, 1993: Del Rio Incorporated DR #4 Mine


While mining the Buckeye Springs coal seam, a continuous miner machine cut into a previously mined area. Equipment was lost. The map showed the underground mines to be 500 feet away, no boreholes were being drilled.


"The accident occurred as a direct result of the operator mining into an unmapped, abandoned mine."


September 22, 1994: Harlan Cumberland Co. Totz Impoundment


Breakthrough into mine from Turkey Pen slurry impoundment. Source was suspected to be a roof fall. MSHA investigators indicated that there was only 12 feet of overburden at the area of the leak.


October 6, 1994: Golden Oak Mining Co. Black Oak #9 Mine


Accidental cut through into old abandoned adjacent mine. The abandoned mine was plotted on the map but was 230 feet closer than shown on the map.


"This accident occurred due to management's failure to provide a mine map which accurately showed adjacent mine workings with 1000 feet of the active mine."


May 5, 1995 Consol of Kentucky, Inc.


On May 5, 1995, a continuous miner cut through into an adjacent abandoned coal mine, though the certified mine map indicated the abandoned mine was located approximately 235 feet from the active mine. Bore holes were not being drilled in advance of the mining. The cut though inundated a section of the mine.


The investigating team concluded that the accident resulted from the operator's failure to accurately locate the adjacent abandoned mine on the mine map resulting in the active mine inadvertently mining into the abandoned mine.


May 9, 1995: Apple Tree Mining Company Mine #4


Cut through into old works. Boreholes were not being drilled, and the certified mine maps "indicated that the abandoned workings were located approximately four hundred and twenty-five feet from the active mines."


"It is the consensus of the investigating team that the accident occurred as a direct result of the operator's failure to accurately locate the adjacent abandoned mine, on the mine map."


June 29, 1995 Apollo Coal Company


A cut through into an abandoned mine released "a large inrush of water flooding the entry[.]" The certified mine map indicated the abandoned mine was located approximately 575 feet from the active mine. Bore holes were not being drilled.


The investigating team concluded that the accident occurred as a result of the operator's failure to accurately locate the adjacent abandoned mine, on the mine map and the active mine inadvertently mined into the abandoned mine.


May 14, 1997: Straight Creek Mining #1


This underground mine in Clairfield, Claiborne County, Tennessee cut through into abandoned mine works. According to the accident investigation,


"this accident occurred as a direct result of the operators failure to conduct weekly examinations of the unventilated abandoned panel where water had been allowed to accumulate and to perform required test drilling." The approved mine maps were not accurate in depicting the old works.


May 27, 1997: Kodiak Inc. Mine #1


Abandoned works encountered in this underground mine. Wall map was not certified, and according to mine management, old works were shown on the map but "the map has not been very accurate." Unclear from file whether any test drilling was being conducted.


April 20, 1998: Manalapan Mining Co.


A mine was inundated nearly to the roof after encountering a sealed area.


October 24, 1999: Powell Mountain Coal Co., Inc.


Unplanned inundation of water. The "water appears to have come from an abandoned mine located in the No. 9 coal seam approximately 300 feet above the Wallins coal seam" believed to have been caused by a massive roof fall.


November 21, 2000: Altec Energy Mine No. 2


Inaccurate location of an adjacent abandoned mine on a certified mine map at the Altec Energy, Inc. Mine No. 2, located in Letcher County, resulted in penetration of an abandoned mine and an unplanned inundation of water on the active working section covering 57,000 square feet with approximately 4 million gallons of water. The certified mine map showed the extent of the old works of the nearest abandoned mine to be approximately 750 feet from the active working section. Since the certified mine map showed no abandoned workings within 200 feet of the active workings, based on the mine map information, the mine operator was not required to drill test boreholes.


According to the investigation report, "only minimal engineering standards had been met regarding certification of the mine map. However, the engineer had no known source for the determination of the old workings." MSHA was unaware that the mine had begun operation because the management failed to notify MSHA of the correct mine status.


March 8, 2001: Goodin Creek Contracting Inc.


An underground mine was inundated when the active mine "shot into a previously unknown mine."


July 25, 2001: Stoney Fork Mine #2


Inundation of water from mining into old works. "The inundation was the result of the operator failing to maintain an accurate and up-to-date map that showed the old works surrounding the area that is presently being mined."


August 17, 2001 Branham & Baker Underground Corp.


Mine penetrated an old, abandoned coal bank not shown on the maps supplied by the operator.


August 22, 2001: Stoney Fork Mine #2


A cut through into old works resulting in unplanned inundation of water. "The mine operator's mine map did not accurately show the old works of the adjacent abandoned old mine."


"The accident occurred as a result of unmapped abandoned mine workings being adjacent to the active mine."


August 25, 2001 McCoy Elkhorn Coal Corporation


Breakthrough into an old mine. According to the agency, while existing old mine portals were projected within 800 feet of the mine, the mine map submitted and signed by a registered engineer failed to accurately provide the old mine workings, "exposing the miners to unknown hazards associated within the old mine."


January 13, 2002: Stillhouse Mining LLC Mine #1


Water inundation at mine, attributed to pulling pillars below Kellioka seam which held water 6-36 inches deep.


February 28, 2002: Sassafras #10


Sudden influx of water into active works from seam above that being mined through old core drill not shown on map.


April 8, 2002: Sidney Coal Co.


Massey Energy, Inc. subsidiary Sidney Coal Company, operating Solid Energy Mining Company Mine #1 in Pike County, Kentucky, cut through into a previously pillared section of a mine, which contained an unmapped body of water in an area where mine floor elevation had also not been mapped. Neither borehole drilling nor an examination of the previously pillared area had been conduced prior to mining. Engineering services for the mine were performed by Sidney Coal Company personnel.


Among the findings of MSHA were that "[b]oreholes were not drilled fifty feet in advance of mining[.]" According to the inspection reports, approximately 3.7 million gallons of water flowed into the active section when the cut through occurred, endangering the lives of ten men. According to those same reports, "the engineering staff and mine management was aware that elevations were required prior to this area being pillared." According to MSHA investigators, "the section foreman was aware that boreholes were required to be drilled when mining within 50 feet of the adjacent mining." According to records, "Engineering knew that elevations were required prior to pillaring but stated that they just did not have time to get these elevations prior to pillaring this area."


It was, according to field notes of the investigation, known that water was present in the pillared area but without the proper elevations it could not be predicted that water would accumulate in the pillared area. The field notes indicated that while no one was injured,


The hazard that the miners were exposed to was they were

advancing toward the J-2 panel without drilling test holes

and cut into it and drown out the section with water. They could

have cut into a pocket of methane and blowed the mine up. Or cut

into black damp and killed everybody.


May 28, 2002: Harlan Cumberland Coal Company/Rex Coal


Mined into old workings resulting in unplanned inundation.


"The approved mine map indicates that the closest old workings to the active 'mine' are at least 200 feet away."


August 21, 2002: Leslie Mountain Processing


An active section of the Leslie Mountain Processing Mine No. 1 broke through into an unknown area of abandoned mine workings that were not depicted on the company's mine maps, nor on the maps submitted to MSHA. According to MSHA, while the engineer that certified the current mine map "was prudent in his duties," "[a] primary cause of the incident was that all engineering firms did not exercise the same degree of prudence in researching mine map archives in an attempt to locate old or abandoned mine workings."


November 4, 2002: West Fork 2 LLC Mine #6


A dry cut through resulted in "black damp" coming out. The company was not drilling in advance of the mine development. "The mine maps didn't show any old mine in this area."


December 6, 2002: Dad's Coal Company


After a cut through into an unmapped abandoned mine, possibly mined in the 1950's, company officials and MSHA personnel examined the outcrop of the coal seam along Grapevine Creek and discovered the portals of an abandoned mine which had been cut into underground. The two portals, fanhouse, old powderhouse and haulroad were "very obvious" once the cropline was walked. The company did not check the USGS maps for this mine, and walked some of the crop line but not in this area. According to one company official, they did not check with the state map files prior to the cut through.


The inspector noted that


The engineer failed to show a mine adit (indicating mine portals)

where the old adjacent mine was. The omission of information on

the mine map is a very grave and hazardous thing for coal miners to

deal with. The coal miners rely totally on certified engineers to

submit to MSHA and coal mine operators maps that contain reliable

information. If the adit were shown MSHA reviewers and the coal mine

operators would have know old works were out ahead of the projections.

As a result of the omission the active mine cut into the adjacent works of

the abandoned mine. Mining into abandoned worked out areas could

disrupt mine ventilation and expose miners to hazards from H2) accumu-

lations, oxygen deficiencies, and accumulations of methane and other

gasses. This accidental cut through could have been prevented.


* * * *

The professional engineer did not show an adit on the mine map. He

did not check with the KDMM map files in Frankfort which has USGS

quadrangle map of the Lick Creek area. This USGS Quadrangle

map clearly shows an adit (Y) with mine written beside it . . . Also

topo maps were available on the internet showing the same thing . . .

In addition if the crop had been walked there were several items which

would clearly indicate mining had occurred. . . .


The above items could not have been overlooked with some effort to

check the crop within 1000' of mine projections . . . .


December 9, 2002: Road Fork Development Co., Burnwell Energy Mine


A cut through into a sealed panel encountered dry workings. An order was issued for inaccurate mine maps. The abandoned mine panel was 140 feet deeper than was shown on the mine map. The mine maps indicated that the workings were more than 80 feet away from the active operation, so test drilling wasn't required.


Mine Mapping: What Needs To Be Done


In the aftermath of the Quecreek Mine flooding, the efforts of state agencies to advance information and technologies for preventing unplanned mine breakthroughs have increased.


MSHA District 7 began an effort to focus operators on the problem of unplanned inundations. In November, 2002 and again in February 2003, letters were written to a number of mines in Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee indicating that MSHA personnel had ranked the inundation risk of the mines based on proximity and location to old workings, differences in elevation and dewatering ability, and notifying certain mines that personal visits by MSHA personnel had been ordered to check on the accuracy of information and mine maps relative to areas of known old workings. A series of questions concerning the extent and location of underground works were developed and supplied, and later were converted into an "Inundation Hazard Assessment" form. In February, 2003, after on-site visits, MSHA followed up with a second letter indicating that it had identified for certain mines conditions posing inundation hazards. Those hazards included:


* One mine where the on-site investigation reflected that the operator had exhausted all practical means of identifying the old works. The mine was 25 years old, and the location of the old works was reconstructed based on miner interviews.


* Another where the "old works are only twenty feet below the active mine. There are many cracks in the floor of the active mine. Currently water is draining out of the old works which could cause the active mine to be inundated with water."


* Another where "the active mine has cut into old works on right section off mains and water has accumulated in the active works of the right section." No explorations as drill holes were used to verify the extent of the old works, instead the barrier was expanded from 200 to 400 feet.


* One follow-up form, answering the question of whether the extent of the hazard could be "reasonably verified," answered "no" because "drilling would be the only possible way."


MSHA District 7 recommended, but did not mandate, a series of measures to such operations, including two preventive and five response measures. Those were performing additional surveys or drilling to verify location and to measure water or gases impounded in former works; further research into other sources of map information; installing additional survey markers on surface to aid in pumping or rescue and recovery; better training of mine examiners and miners in detection and escape; and assessment of emergency supplies.


KRC believes that a number of additional measures are needed to improve the protection of miners, the public and the environment from injury, death and environmental damage from breakthroughs into abandoned mine works and blowouts from mines impounding water:


1. Increased federal, state and private support for mine mapping is needed.


In Kentucky, an interagency effort called "Kentucky Mine Mapping Initiative" has been working to improve mine mapping. The initiative has already produced reforms in state law concerning mine mapping access among agencies and the public, and is working to consolidate and digitize mine maps and data for more effective risk mitigation and emergency response.


The efforts to digitize and georeference mine maps must be adequately funded. Congress should increase the OSM budget utilizing federal portion AML dollars to support state efforts to digitize old mine maps and to validate those maps through surface investigation and other georeference techniques.


Major coal companies and land holding companies and engineering companies should contribute to the state efforts to digitize these maps, both in providing archived maps and financially.


2. Operators should be required to employ best predictive technologies, and technology improvement should be adequately supported.


In July, 2003, MSHA, OSM, and the University of Kentucky are co-sponsoring an interactive forum on "Geophysical Technologies for Detecting Underground Coal Mine Voids" in Lexington, Kentucky. Such efforts should be supported and operators should be required to apply best demonstrated predictive technology.


3. Mine map certifications should be required to specifically note whether the maps are being certified by a licensed registered professional engineer as to the accuracy of the existence and location of underground works. Where such certification is not made, and for any map indicating through broken lines or otherwise that the precise location of the extent of underground works has not been surveyed, no license or permit should issue absent MSHA approval based on site-specific data delineating the presence and extent of such works.


4. Where engineering certifications of mine workings are provided and prove inaccurate, resulting in inundations of gas, air or water, referral to appropriate engineering licensure boards should be made for evaluation of the performance against accepted professional standards. In answer to the question of whether MSHA had referred any cases in which it found the engineering certification of inaccurate maps to be the cause of the accident to such boards, MSHA responded that it had no such records.


5. For all existing and proposed mines where the extent of former mine works has not been delineated based on proper surveys, drilling in advance of the mining should be required.


The numerous instances in which such drilling was not being conducted because workings were assumed to be hundreds or thousands of feet away, yet were encountered in an unplanned manner resulting in inundations, reflects that the current approach of requiring advance drilling only within a certain number of feet of known mapped workings is ineffective.


6. MSHA should adopt and utilize the District 7 Inundation hazard Assessment form for all existing and proposed underground mines and coal waste impoundments, and should mandate, rather than recommend, those investigative and training / response measures it recommended to the high inundation hazard operations.


Inaccurate mine mapping played a significant role in the Martin County Coal Company coal waste impoundment failure. Yet insufficient resources have been deployed to address the underlying problem of inaccurate mine mapping, which poses an undefined risk of a repeat of the Martin County tragedy elsewhere in the coalfields, and an unacceptable risk to underground miners.


I appreciate the prompt attention of your agencies to these matters and encourage your consideration and support for these recommended reforms.





Tom FitzGerald


1 The disposition of the orders and citations were not provided. The statements reproduced here in quotations are those made by MSHA investigators, and reflect the facts as the agency found them, and do not reflect any change in the findings of fact that might have been made by a reviewing board if the citations or orders were appealed and the initial findings altered. They are presented to show the extent of the problem, not to assign blame to particular companies.




By Kentucky Resources Council on 07/19/2003 5:32 PM
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