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At West Virginia Mine, Drilling Effort Aims to Speed Rescuers’ Reentry

West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin; Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Crews have opted to drill a third borehole deep into a West Virginia coal mine in hopes of drawing out enough poisonous, explosive gas to allow rescue teams to reenter the area and hopefully find four miners alive, officials said Wednesday morning.

One ventilation hole has reached more than 1,000 feet from the earth’s surface into the Upper Big Branch mine where they hope up to four miners are taking refuge. A second hole nearby is about halfway completed. The third is in the works.

Three of the miners are believed to be in one area, while a fourth is believed to be in a different area, said Kevin Stricklin, a federal Mine Safety and Health Administration official.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Erica Peterson has been reporting from the site of the mine disaster and spoke with us this afternoon about the rescue effort, the likelihood that the other miners will be found alive and how the elementary school serving as the media staging area has garnered national media attention before for its proximity to a massive coal slurry impoundment:

The crews hope to install high-pressure exhaust fans to extract methane gas and give rescue effort officials an indication of whether the air is safe enough to allow a rescue team of up to 30 to reenter the area the site of Monday’s underground explosion, Stricklin said.

The rescue team would advance into the smoky, debris strewn area partway on an underground train called a mantrip. They would then proceed cautiously with half the team advancing and half the team lagging behind to help them in case they run into danger.

Gov. Joe Manchin gave an update on two miners who survived the explosion, saying one was doing “extremely well” while the other remains in an intensive-care unit.

MSHA announced it has appointed a team to investigate the cause of the explosion at the mine on Monday that has killed 25 miners.

Massey Energy Co., parent company of the mine’s operator, said Wednesday that 11 of the victims have been identified and seven bodies have been removed from the mine. There have been another 14 confirmed fatalities but they have not been identified.

Manchin initially said rescuers banged on a drill pipe for 15 minutes in hopes of being heard below ground and got no response, but Stricklin later said that wasn’t the case but survivors might have heard the drilling.

Officials plan to set off small explosions on the surface to send seismic signals into the mine, The Associated Press reported. “Miners are trained to bang back on the drill’s casing. Sections of mine roof contain numerous metal bolts that help keep it in place and that trapped miners can bang on to signal their presence.”

The AP said that the quality and quantity of coal at Big Branch “make the mine one of gems of Massey’s operation”:

The mine produced more than 1.2 million tons of coal last year and uses the lowest-cost underground mining method, making it more profitable. The mine produces metallurgical coal that is used to make steel and sells for up to $200 a ton — more than double the price for the type of coal used by power plants.

Federal regulators probing the explosion plan to review Massey’s safety violations, many of which involved venting methane gas. If the odorless, colorless gas is not kept at safe levels, a small spark can ignite it.

The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette examined how another deadly coal mine disaster could happen four years after similar high-profile disasters led to new mine safety reforms:

“It tells me one of two things,” said longtime mine safety crusader Davitt McAteer, who ran the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton years. “One, the law isn’t being enforced or, two, the law didn’t go far enough.”

By Tuesday, there was evidence that both could be true.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports on reactions from the miners’ families and how the coalfields community has been banding together during the ongoing rescue effort.

Officials are planning to brief the media again on the rescue effort after 3:30 p.m. Wednesday.

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