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Safety of Coal Mining Debated after Utah Mine Collapse

August 8, 2007 at 6:05 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The six coal miners have been trapped for almost three days now after the shaft they were working on caved in early Monday morning. About 150 rescue workers have been working around the clock at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Emory County, about 100 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah.

The men are trapped more than three miles from the mine’s entrance and about 1,500 feet below the mountain’s surface. Rescuers are about two days away from completing two small holes above the mine. They will provide fresh oxygen, food, water and communications, if the miners survived the collapse.

BOB MURRAY, Co-Owner, Crandall Canyon Mine: We can provide everything they need, including a toothbrush and a comb, to keep them alive indefinitely until the underground effort gets to them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Investigators are trying to determine whether the miners were taking part in a form of mining known as retreat mining. In this method, miners excavate sections of the mine, leaving coal pillars to support the shaft. After they’ve cleared the area, they’ll implode it, bringing down the pillars and collapsing the mine behind them.

Family and friends of the trapped miners are trying to stay hopeful.

FRIEND OF TRAPPED MINER: I’m just really scared.

FRIEND OF TRAPPED MINER: Everyone is praying right now.

FRIEND OF TRAPPED MINER: I just hope he’s all right, and I hope they can get him out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Federal inspectors have issued more than 300 violations for this mine since 2004; about 100 of them were “serious.” As recently as last month, they were cited for inadequate escape passages.

For the latest on this story and for some understanding of the challenges in rescue operations, we go to Utah. Terry Wood is covering the story for the ABC network affiliate in Salt Lake City, KTVX-TV, where he is an anchorman. He joins us from the command center in Huntington.

And Michael McCarter is a professor of mining engineering at the University of Utah.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

And starting with you, Terry Wood, we know the rescue operation had to stop last night because of unstable ground. How are things going right now?

An update from Huntington

Terry Wood
Anchor, KTVX
Knowing how mines work and mine disasters work, there's a very good chance that these men were killed in the initial concussion. On the good side, there was not a fire. There was not an explosion, so they could be trapped in an air pocket inside.

TERRY WOOD, Anchor, KTVX: Well, the word we're getting here at the command center is that it should be resuming just about now. They did have to stop. They had to pull out all their underground miners, all the underground rescue teams, because of seismic activity whether this was aftershocks of an earthquake or it was the further collapse of the mine, that's debatable right now.

But it was dangerous inside the mine, so all the underground rescue teams were pulled out. We're told, we're expecting them to get underway again about this time after they've shored up the wall.

Now, the other way they're attacking this problem is vertically, with two holes, as you mentioned earlier, two holes being drilled in the ground, an eight-and-a-half-inch hole and about a two-and-a-half-inch hole. That eight-and-a-half-inch hole is expected to take about two more days before they can find out if the men are alive or not.

The two-and-a-half-inch hole got underway last night about midnight, and as of this morning, just before noon, it had gone down 450 feet of the 1,500 feet they have to go to reach the men. Presumably by this time, if they've run into no problems, it should be about halfway to the men.

Once that hole or the other hole -- whichever one gets there first -- they'll lower microphones. They'll try to see if they can get any sound. It will be very sensitive microphones, and they'll try to determine if these men are, indeed, alive or if, perhaps, they were killed by the initial concussion of the cave into the mine. So it's going to be days.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Terry Wood, we heard the owner say that, of course, they hope they're going down in the right place, but they could hit a pillar and have to start all over again. How clear an idea do they have of where these miners are, exactly?

TERRY WOOD: Well, they have a pretty good idea of where they are in the mine. They can plot it on the map of the mine. They know where they were working at the time. Plus, there were 10 men in there at the time of the initial cave-in. Four of those men escaped. So they're also able to fill in the details of where these miners were.

Still, it's going to be inaccurate drilling. The larger hole, the eight-and-a-half-inch hole, should be very accurate, but it's taking a little bit longer to get that hole down. The two-and-a-half-inch hole, which may be about halfway there now, that is not quite as accurate, and they're hoping they'll go into the right area, but they could hit another vein of coal or just solid rock and have to start all over again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You know, we've seen the owners be alternately somewhat optimistic and then pessimistic, back and forth. Why is that?

TERRY WOOD: Well, I guess he just doesn't want to give the families too much hope, Judy. You remember what happened in the Sago mine disaster where, for a while, it was thought that all the men survived, and then we learned later that all but one had died. Nobody wants to give false hope in this instance.

And knowing how mines work and mine disasters work, there's a very good chance that these men were killed in the initial concussion. On the good side, there was not a fire. There was not an explosion, so they could be trapped in an air pocket inside.

So I don't think the owner or anybody else around here really wants to give any false hope to these families that they may be alive, also preparing them for the fact that they could have been killed in that initial cave-in.

Describing the rescue effort

Michael McCarter
University of Utah
In order for them to make this rescue safely, they have to shore up the sides and the roof and also reestablish ventilation. That has to be done, of course, to maintain the safety for the rescuers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Terry Wood, thank you, and we're going to turn now to Professor Michael McCarter at the University of Utah.

Professor, help us understand why this rescue effort is as challenging as it appears to be?

MICHAEL MCCARTER, University of Utah: Well, the objective, of course, is to reach the area where they knew the miners were last located. That requires going into the entries, which are actually horizontal tunnels, rather than shafts. Those entries have been collapsed.

In order for them to make this rescue safely, they have to shore up the sides and the roof and also reestablish ventilation. That has to be done, of course, to maintain the safety for the rescuers. And that takes time. It takes a lot of skill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what, Professor, can you tell us about the structure of the mine, the materials in the mine that make this harder or not?

MICHAEL MCCARTER: Well, you can visualize this structure as being kind of like a layer cake, where the coal seam is one of those layers, a very thin layer. And the entries are driven into the coal seam back into the mountain.

There are a number of parallel entries that go back to the working areas. Those are actually bored in the coal. There's sandstone and shale above it, which is fairly hard rock, and usually shale and sandstone below it. So the coal represents the walls of the sides and the shale -- actually, sometimes coal is left there to help support the roof. The roof is secured usually with rock bolts. That's kind of the setting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then on a scale -- maybe I could ask you, on a scale of difficulty, if you were to compare this with other mine collapses, how would you say this ranks? Is that possible to say?

MICHAEL MCCARTER: Well, it's difficult to say, but the fact that I think there's five entries that go back in the mine, if they're all blocked, that means that it's a fairly serious collapse. Frequently, if there is a collapse, it's not that extensive. So this is a challenging situation.

Understanding the mine's violations

Michael McCarter
University of Utah
The MSHA inspectors who are responsible to go into these mines and inspect them, they inspect every nook and cranny. If they find something like a tool left on the floor, that would be a violation. It could result in a citation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are told that there have been more than 300 violations issued to this mine since 2004. Is that a significant number? What does that mean?

MICHAEL MCCARTER: Well, I think it's difficult for most people to understand what that means. A violation is, in fact, observing something that does not meet the requirements of the MINER Act.

The MSHA inspectors who are responsible to go into these mines and inspect them, they inspect every nook and cranny. If they find something like a tool left on the floor, that would be a violation. It could result in a citation. The S&S, or serious and substantial, violations are more serious than just the normal violation, but to have 300 is not terribly unusual. It doesn't mean that it's an unsafe mine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One other thing I want to ask you about, the type of mining being conducted here, so-called retreat mining. Now, the owners say that's not what these miners were engaged in, but if that is the type of mining being done here, how does that affect -- how much more difficult does that make the rescue operation?

MICHAEL MCCARTER: It probably won't affect the rescue operation. It's just a technique that is used to recover as much of the coal resource as possible when mining operations are withdrawing from an area of the mine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So it just -- in other words, it depends on where it is?

MICHAEL MCCARTER: Where the retreat mining...

How the families are coping

Terry Wood
Anchor, KTVX
The mine owner says that, if the men survived that initial blast, they should have plenty of air down there to last for weeks and should be alive by the time they manage to drill that hole down and get through.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes, I was just trying to get a better understanding of to what extent that would affect it, and I think you answered it. Professor McCarter, thanks.

I want to quickly go back to Terry Wood. And tell us, how are the families dealing with all this at this point?

TERRY WOOD: The families are being kept away from the media, of course. They want their privacy. They are in the town of Huntington, about 13 miles from here. They're holed up in a junior high school there. We've talked to some as they've come in and out the first day. Of course, they're concerned. The longer this goes on, Judy, the more their hope fades.

On the positive side, though, the mine owner says that, if the men survived that initial blast, they should have plenty of air down there to last for weeks and should be alive by the time they manage to drill that hole down and get through and get some communication with the men. That's the hope.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I know there's a lot of hope coming in from all directions. Terry Wood, thank you very much. And Professor Michael McCarter, we thank you both.

MICHAEL MCCARTER: Thank you.