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Mine investigation turns to faulty maps of coal country

Maps of the state’s long-abandoned coal mines have come under scrutiny by authorities trying to prevent future accidents like the one that left nine miners trapped in a flooded shaft for three days.
State authorities will review operations at 34 other mines around the state that are located next to abandoned mines to determine whether changes are warranted, and a new state commission will review mine safety issues.
A joint state-federal investigation also will focus on underground maps in investigating how the men became trapped 240 feet underground after breaking through the wall of a flooded adjacent mine.
The miners’ maps showed the adjacent mine to be 300 feet away. Richard Stickler, director of the state Bureau of Deep Mine Safety, said those maps will be a key focus of the joint investigation into the Quecreek mine accident.
“You rely on those maps as being accurate and safe,” said Dave Lauriski, assistant secretary for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
One retired miner suggested Monday that details had been deliberately left off an old map used by the miners to cover up how much coal was removed from the abandoned mine.
The special Pennsylvania commission — to include coal mine operators, union representatives, mine engineers and surveyors — will scrutinize the accident as well as the state’s mine-permitting process and emergency-response procedures.
The nine miners have already been interviewed about what happened the night of the accident at the mine, which had a regular inspection only a week before, Lauriski said.
Retired miner Joseph Jashienski said the map of the abandoned mine, the Saxman, was wrong because of improper mining techniques used the day before it was abandoned.
Jashienski, 89, said the now-defunct Saxman Coal and Coke Co. gathered all the coal it could that day by using a machine to carve out a large space in the shape of a baseball diamond. He said the now-deceased mine superintendent who made the map left that detail out because such a procedure would raise red flags with regulators.
“He didn’t want anybody to know he made a ballfield the last day of work,” said Jashienski, who declined to identify the manager. “If you put on the map that you made a ballfield, the state inspector is going to wonder what you are doing.”
Scott Roberts, the head of the mineral resource management division of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said he wasn’t aware of Jashienski’s claim but said it sounded valid.
“Those type of things happen,” Roberts said. “I wouldn’t dispute what he said a bit. If he mined in it, he’s firsthand information.”
According to records, the old mine opened in the 1920s, closed in the 1930s, and then reopened in 1942. Roberts said it seems to have largely shut down in the mid-1950s, but production records indicate some activity may have continued until 1963, perhaps to retrieve columns of coal left to support the roof.
A spokesman for the Quecreek Mining Co. and the Black Wolf Coal Co., of Friedens, the operator of the Quecreek mine, had no immediate comment.
At a news conference, five of the rescued miners thanked the public for their support throughout the ordeal. There were smiles and laughter as they talked, three sitting in wheelchairs and the others standing behind them.
The men recalled their relief when a corned beef sandwich and some soda turned up in Dennis Hall’s lunch box.
“One guy took a bite and passed it around,” said Thomas Foy, 51. “I figured we were good for another couple days.”
Only Randy Fogle, 43, remained hospitalized Monday with a bad case of heartburn. None of the men suffered serious injuries, doctors said.
Another rescued miner, John Phillippi, went to the mine with his wife, Michelle, shaking hands with all of the workers and watching as crews dismantled equipment used during the 77-hour rescue effort.
The men were divided on whether they would ever go back into a mine.
“I have my doubts; I mean I’ve got almost 30 years in and that’s just too much,” Foy said. “I’ve got seven grandkids and I want to see them guys grow up. That’s it.”
Hall, 48, who has been mining since he left high school 30 years ago, has already made up his mind: He’s going back to work.
“It’s inevitable. Everybody’s got to work,” he said. “I love my job.”
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On the Net:
State mine bureau: http://www.dep.state.pa.us/dep/deputate/minres/dms/dms.htm
Federal mine safety: http://www.msha.gov/welcome.htm