Mine safety regulations, or the lack thereof, are all too often written or not written to advance the popularity and electability of politicians rather than the safety of coal miners. The popular phrase politicians love to use after a mine tragedy is that “we must make sure this never happens again.” Typically they then pass a bunch of laws requiring more paperwork, more inspections, more government inspectors and more legal liabilities for mine supervisors. This is often done without knowledge or regard for what happened or how it might be prevented from happening again.

The laws are seemingly founded in the belief that mine supervisors and workers don’t care about themselves or about each other. The assumption is that these mining men and women will not do what they believe keeps them and their friends safe, unless the government is prepared to fine them or put them in jail.

The truth is that no one cares more about the safety of coal miners than coal miners. As a coal miner, I can tell you that it was not fear of a government action that kept me from going under an unsupported mine roof – it was instead the fear of being crushed.

An example of our governments misdirected approach to mine safety solutions is provided by an accident that occurred at the then Massey Energy Rockhouse mine in eastern Kentucky. An experienced miner was crushed by a rock while attempting to recover a mining machine that had shut down under an unsupported roof. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) action after the accident was, and usually is, to find someone to vilify as being at fault. Those of you not familiar with mining should note that the continuous miner machine is always out from under supported roof while mining. If the miner machine shuts down due to an electrical problem for example, the government allows electricians to access the continuous miner for repair by building temporary “crib blocks” as roof support. However, the building of “cribs” requires the miners to be slightly beyond the roof bolted line and therefore puts them at greater risk.

For years the government has approved the use of this “cribbing” to access the equipment and to get it trammed back to the supported roof area. But after the Rockhouse accident mentioned above, I challenged the electricians to develop a remote control device that could reengage the tram motor breaker so that no one had to work out beyond supported roof to recover a broken down miner. They successfully did so, and today throughout the industry this remote device frequently prevents miners from having to get in harm’s way. This is the kind of real step honest leaders can take toward making sure that “this never happens again” — if their focus is on avoiding future accidents as opposed to faulting someone for one that has occurred. Simply put, MSHA often acts more like a police force than like safety professionals.

During my career, dozens of similar technological and procedural enhancements were developed at Massey to reduce the likelihood of accidents. Reflective clothing, one that even many non-coal miners see in grocery stores and malls every day, is just another example of a true safety enhancement developed at my insistence so that miners would be more visible to one another – not only underground but outside as well. My idea to develop fully reflective clothing was spurred by an accident wherein a shuttle car had run over a friend of mine because the car operator did not see him. The new reflective clothes improved visibility has the effect of greatly decreasing the chance of one miner running equipment into another miner because he failed to see him in the dark. These types of safety enhancements were done not with the purpose of punishing someone for a mistake, but rather to make use of lessons learned from accidents and thereby keep future miners safer.

Many egregious examples of MSHA’s failure to advance safety are everywhere in the mining industry today. Unfortunately, the industry is afraid to push back for fear of retaliation i.e. more violations, delayed permits, and mandated mining processes.

Now to my purpose in this essay – the coal mining industry needs to be keenly aware of the dangers of natural gas inundations in coal mines.* The industry and our government have for decades developed laws essentially directed at the detection and removal of “coal bed methane gas.” Little focus has ever been placed on “natural gas” or “out of seam gas.” This is true despite the fact that natural gas is slightly more explosive than what is commonly called coalbed methane, and that it can appear unexpectedly, suddenly, and in very large quantities.

The likely reason that natural gas inundations have not been the focus of MSHA or the coal industry is that recognizable inundations of natural gas into coal mines are rare. However, post the UBB explosion it is clear that natural gas mine inundations do occur in at least certain Boone and Raleigh County, West Virginia mines.

Like with the reflective clothing, or the capability to remotely restart the continuous miner tram, some specific enhancements must be made if we are to make it less likely that more coal miners will perish in natural gas explosions, or if we are as the politicians say to “make sure this never happens again.” Yet it seems that nothing at all is being done to address this risk. Many in the government are still blinded by their political loyalties and refuse to acknowledge that the sudden inundation of natural gas almost certainly caused the UBB explosion. Gas samples (taken by MSHA) and hydro-carbon testing immediately following the explosion clearly showed the presence of large amounts of natural gas continuing to be liberated from the mine. Testing clearly showed that this gas was out-of-seam natural gas and not coalbed methane.

Since the Upper Big Branch accident the media and the politicians have been too busy casting blame to truly assess what happened and what actions they might take or laws they might pass to reduce the chances of another natural gas explosion. However the lack of concern does not change the fact that it will happen again. MSHA and NIOSH (National Institute of Safety and Health) must be required by lawmakers, the mining industry, the UMWA, coal miners, and the media to address this very serious safety issue. Any failure to improve the detection of natural gas inundations and to better define the geological circumstances under which they are more likely to occur means that politicians have broken their promise to “make sure this never happens again.”

Another tragedy waiting to happen in the mining industry relates to the hundreds of gas wells being drilled in the eastern U.S. today. If a mine cuts into a gas well it is a very dangerous circumstance. The public and the politicians are likely not aware that oftentimes the company drilling gas wells in an area and the one mining coal are two separate and distinct companies. The lives of coal miners are at risk if the companies involved do not voluntarily establish good communication among themselves of where the wells are being drilled. Even then there are no survey or legally required mapping standards to assure the accuracy of the maps that miners lives depend on every day. This is even more true when it involves the mapping of “old” gas wells and “old” mine works. At Massey we worked diligently with the gas companies to make certain gas wells were known to us and were properly located on our maps. However, the laws are lax at best if not non-existent and miners’ lives are at great risk if an active mine cuts into an old one, not only from potentially explosive gas but also from flooding water and blackdamp.

My experience over a span of 42 years involved near misses with both gas wells and old works and, just like with all other accidents, I implored engineers and geologists to find a better answer, a better technology and a better process. Once I required that a mine that could have legally come within 200 feet of an old mine stay at least 1,000 feet away; we later discovered that except for this additional safety factor the mine would have cut into old works containing millions of gallons of water, which most surely would have drowned the entire crew. The Quecreek incident in a Pennsylvania coal mine is a fairly recent example of a near-miss tragedy involving an active mine cutting into an old mine that is likely to reoccur unless mapping standards and other processes are improved. MSHA has taken little, if any, action to make sure a Quecreek incident never happens again. In fact, MSHA makes inadequate use of horizontal drills that were frequently used at Massey and which are now readily available to the industry that can drill 1000 feet or more to potentially detect old mine works. Despite the availability of these drills, the currently outdated federal mine law requires advance drilling for a distance of only 20 feet beyond your next mine cut.

At a minimum the following should be implemented into law and the related training required:

  1. Training manuals and classes should clearly address the possibility of the presence of natural gas as well as of coalbed methane, and all miners should be made aware of the very real risk of natural gas inundations.
  2. Every coal miner on a longwall crew should wear a gas detector.
  3. Gas monitors should be required out-by long wall faces, their readings should be visible to the longwall operator at all times, and the equipment should be automatically shut off when specified gas levels are detected.
  4. Perhaps most importantly, mine maps must be greatly improved. Often mine maps used today are simply drawings that show gas well locations, outcrop lines, nearby old mine works and other potential hazards that, for several reasons (including faulty original mapping) are not properly located on the map. Maps should have detailed legends showing how the depicted items on the map were located. (i.e. by triangulated survey, transferred from an old map or whatever).
  5. A computer archive of all old and current mine works and gas wells should be maintained on a government website and accessible to all engineers who must certify mine maps.
  6. The minimum legal requirement for airflow volumes across a longwall face needs to be reviewed and likely significantly increased. Although minimum levels under the law can be and generally are increased by the approved ventilation plan’s requirements, the discretion to have such low volumes of air as is now required by law should be removed from local district MSHA offices.
  7. The law that an active mine can come within 100 feet of an old mine needs to be updated to address the likelihood of a map’s accuracy. Locations of old mines that were active over 100 years ago is a far different thing than a mine that was active just a few years ago – i.e., since the advent of global positioning systems.
  8. The law should designate an agency separate from MSHA to investigate major mine accidents. Unlike MSHA, the investigating agency should not have a vested interest in the outcome.
  9. In circumstances where a company and MSHA disagree to the extent that a legal action is filed by the company to for example prevent MSHA from forcing the use of a specific ventilation plan or a mine practice, a hearing should be held in front of a panel of knowledgeable mining engineers and mine professionals as opposed to before an administrative law judge. A judge often does not possess the expertise needed to discern between mine practices, and is consequently more likely to rule in favor of the government instead of on the basis of sound mine practices. Although the judge may hear testimony from expert witnesses from both sides of the dispute, it is impractical to expect that a judge can choose wisely between debating experts.
  10. The law should require that ventilation plans be computer simulated to help determine the best plan for a given mine or type of mine.
  11. Advance drilling in areas containing “old” mine works whose exact location cannot be determined should be required for a distance of at least several hundred feet if not longer.

-Don Blankenship