Drilling Down To Rescue Miners

Three separate rigs are drilling escape shafts to free the 33 miners trapped half a mile beneath the Atacama desert in Chile. Mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer and drilling engineer Rudy Lyon discuss the technology being used in the rescue and how miners can be kept out of harm's way.

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PAUL RAEBURN, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Paul Raeburn.

Thirty-three miners working in a copper and gold mine in Chile were trapped when a tunnel collapsed on August 5, sealing them in. August 5, a lot of time has already gone by.

They've been stuck about a half-mile down for six weeks, getting letters and food from the surface through a five-and-a-half-inch hole that was drilled a week ago.

Now, three separate drilling rigs called Plans A, B and C are drilling shafts wide enough to free the miners, but estimates say it could be weeks or even until Christmas before they are out. This is clearly a tougher job than it might seem, and today we're going to see if we can find out why.

Joining me are my guests Rudy Lyon, research and development manager for Center Rock in Berlin, Pennsylvania, a company working on the Plan B drill at the Chilean mine. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Rudy.

Mr. RUDY LYON (Research and Development Manager, Center Rock, Inc.): Thank you, Paul.

RAEBURN: Is it Berlin in Pennsylvania? Is that how it's pronounced?

Mr. LYON: That's correct. It's Berlin, Pennsylvania, and I'm located near Roanoke, Virginia, right now.

RAEBURN: Yes, and our second guest is Davitt McAteer, a vice president of sponsored programs at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia. He's also the former chief of the Mining Safety and Health Administration. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Davitt.

Mr. DAVITT McATEER (Former Chief, Mine Safety and Health Administration; Vice President of Sponsored Programs, Wheeling Jesuit University): Thank you, sir, it's good to be here.

RAEBURN: If you have questions or comments, please give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK. If you're on Twitter, you can tweet us. The account is @scifri. If you want more information about what we'll be talking about this hour, go to our website at sciencefriday.com, where you will find links to our topic.

So the miners have been in there for a long time already, Rudy Lyon, and they face a long time yet to go. What on earth is taking so long?

Mr. LYON: Paul, it's a difficult process. Thankfully when we realized that we could offer some help, we had, I believe it was three five-and-a-half-inch holes that were able to create a conduit from surface to the mine or the refuge area where the 33 miners are.

RAEBURN: Tell me a little bit about your company, Center Rock in Pennsylvania.

Mr. LYON: We're a small engineered equipment manufacturer. We manufacture a product line called down-hole drills, and these are air-powered, percussion rock-drilling tools.

We're also in the compressor, excuse me, sales and rental business. So that...

RAEBURN: And the drilling tools are used for various kinds of mining?

Mr. LYON: They're used for construction applications, water-well drilling, oil and gas drilling, quarry and mining, really any application where a hole needs to be bored in hard rock.

RAEBURN: Now, how did you get involved with the Chilean situation?

Mr. LYON: The president of our company, Brandon Fisher, who's been in the news quite often here recently, just has a big heart. And when he heard that these guys weren't going to be out 'til Christmas, he knew that we had the people, the know-how and the products that could try to accelerate that process.

RAEBURN: And volunteered, or you have a contract, or how...?

Mr. LYON: No, we volunteered. In fact, the first step was to find out what conduit we should use to get in touch with the people that were calling the shots for this rescue.

And we did that, and we negotiated for a number of days to figure out exactly how to mobilize ourselves and how to get the right contacts, and...

RAEBURN: So when did you go to work down there?

Mr. LYON: You know, we've I think we've been down there about three weeks now. There's two other firms that we're working with. One is GeoTech, who are actually the people that are operated the Schramm T-130, and there's also...

RAEBURN: What is that?

Mr. LYON: Oh, I'm sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAEBURN: That's all right.

Mr. LYON: Schramm is a manufacturer of rotary drill rigs.

RAEBURN: Okay.

Mr. LYON: So this is a large machine that you might see them driving along the highways or back roads, drilling water wells - would probably be the place where most people would see these types of drills.

RAEBURN: Okay, so GeoTech is also an American company?

Mr. LYON: No, I don't know where GeoTech is from. I know they have a subsidiary in Chile. I think they may be Canadian.

RAEBURN: And there's a third company drawing the other...?

Mr. LYON: Yeah, it's Driller Supply is actually the people that we are working directly with the tooling or the products that we have supplied.

RAEBURN: Now, did you who drilled the five-and-a-half-inch hole?

Mr. LYON: I believe that was GeoTech.

RAEBURN: Okay, and you're working down through that hole now with your machinery?

Mr. LYON: That's correct. That's the best thing when you're trying to hit a target is to have a conduit that you can use as a guide.

So the first step for us was to we actually made a bit in record time. It was three days from design to completion.

RAEBURN: Made the bit, that's the tip of the drill, so to speak.

Mr. LYON: That's correct. This would be the part that would be engaging the rock with an air-powered motor, hitting it or striking it on top.

So this bit had a five-and-a-half-inch guide nose on the front of it, which would follow that five-and-a-half-inch hole down into the mine. And of course, I think it was about a week ago or so that there was some news flash that the miners had seen this bit coming through, and it created quite a bit of excitement down there.

RAEBURN: So that was now, that was the 12-inch hole. Is that right?

Mr. LYON: That's the 12-inch hole, correct.

RAEBURN: And that enabled, made it easier to pass food through and so forth? Was that a big step?

Mr. LYON: I don't no, I don't think that hole was used to convey any more materials. I think that process was another one with one of these other five-and-a-half-inch holes. Don't they call it a dove or something like that, this tube that they fill up with materials to send down.

RAEBURN: So the purpose, what was the purpose of the 12-inch hole?

Mr. LYON: To create a whole big enough for the next piece of equipment that was going to follow it, and that's a product that we make called an LP. It's a gang drill. We take multiple small hammers and gang them together in a can. And this particular can had a 12-inch guide piece on it, just like the 12-inch bit had a five-and-a-half-inch guide piece.

The big difference between and this is actually the drilling process we're involved with now, and that's opening that 12-inch hole up to 28 inches.

RAEBURN: So in other words, one of the things that slows us down, is this the way it's typically done, to drill a small hole, a slightly bigger hole and then a bigger hole?

Mr. LYON: I think in this case, it was probably chosen more because of the availability of equipment and the interest of speed.

If we could probably, had the time to start from scratch, it probably would have been somewhat different.

RAEBURN: So this actually, even though it might sound to me like drilling these repeated holes slows things down, it might actually be speeding things up.

Mr. LYON: Yes.

RAEBURN: Okay.

Mr. LYON: Now, the benefit to using this 12-inch hole is also that we when you're drilling a large hole - let me back up a little bit. When you're drilling a large hole, one of the biggest challenges is moving the material that you're cutting up and out of the hole.

And with a large hole, it would typically consume enormous amounts of air, probably so much that it would be impractical.

The benefit to following this 12-inch hole is that we are directing the cuttings down into the mine, and the trap miners are actually now helping, mucking this material away from the base of that hole.

RAEBURN: Now Davitt McAteer, you have a long, many years of experience with mine disasters of various sorts. How does this one compare? Is this worse than the others? Is this the same sort of thing that you've seen before?

Mr. McATEER: Well, I think it's different. Each one is a different problem. I think that it's remarkable, and I commend the Chilean group, and I commend the drillers here, particularly you, Rudy, and your company, for stepping up, because this is a very complicated and difficult place to operate.

I've been in the area, not to this mine but in a neighboring mine.

RAEBURN: Set the scene for us a bit, since you've been there.

Mr. McATEER: Oh, it's it's desert. It's kind of a gray area. It's not much in the way of landscape. There's not much in the way of trees or flora or fauna. It's kind of a rocky plateau, if you would, and then you come upon the mine site that has some vegetation typically around those kinds of things. But it's not a garden spot by any stretch of the imagination, and...

RAEBURN: You don't have to worry about tourists getting in the way of the operations, I guess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McATEER: Not to my knowledge.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McATEER: No, you've got to want to go there, and you've got to want to go there for a reason, and that reason is typically to mine an ore or a mineral.

RAEBURN: Copper and gold will get them there, but not much else.

Mr. McATEER: That's right exactly, exactly. And the drilling process, we have suffered in this country an experience a few years ago, in '08, where the mine collapsed out in Crandall Canyon, where 2,000 feet of sandstone came down on a coal mine out there.

And what led me to look into...

RAEBURN: That was in Utah, that Crandall Canyon?

Mr. McATEER: I'm sorry?

RAEBURN: That was at Crandall Canyon, was in Utah?

Mr. McATEER: That's correct. I'm sorry, yes it was.

RAEBURN: Go ahead.

Mr. McATEER: And what us led us to make an inquiry at the Wheeling Jesuit, we have a technology transfer center. We looked at trying to add to technologies to the mining and other sectors of the industry.

And we looked at the way the recovery efforts were trying to be done. I'm sure everybody remembers - at how they were sort of a little above the pick and shovel level but not a whole lot.

And we looked at the ways to see if there couldn't be ways to drill down from above and to try to get at the miners who were hopefully alive at that time, and it turned out they were not.

But it led us to the interest in this kind of drilling scheme and to pay attention to it, to try to develop enough alternatives to get at trapped miners. So when this happened, and Rudy and his company went in, we were very pleased with that, and we've been in touch with some Chilean officials we've known from the past and suggested some of these changes.

RAEBURN: Now that Crandall Canyon, that was the one, I think, I'm looking at some of my notes here, that where some of the rescuers were killed likewise.

Mr. McATEER: That's correct.

RAEBURN: Oh, what an awful situation.

Mr. McATEER: And they were killed in an effort to try to drill in or go back into the mine, and the effort to we went and looked at some of the tunnel-boring companies to try to see if there was another alternative to boring in from the side, in that instance, but boring in, in a tunnel-boring company, where you could use new technologies to get underground in a faster way and more protected way than was being done at that time.

RAEBURN: Rudy, are some of your people in danger with what they're doing in Chile now?

Mr. LYON: No, no, our people are all on surface. They're...

RAEBURN: Davitt, how did that happen, that those rescuers in Utah were in that precarious position?

Mr. McATEER: Well, the mine had come down - had collapsed because of extensive mining that went beyond the level of safety. And the pressure, essentially the pressure from the top crushed down. But when an effort was made to try to go back in through the entry to try to drill back to those miners, some of the rescuers were killed in an effort to try to do that when the additional pressure and shifting of the rock above caused the death of the additional individuals.

RAEBURN: All right, give us a call if you have questions, 800-989-8255. And we'll be right back after this very short break.

(Soundbite of music)

RAEBURN: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

RAEBURN: From NPR, this is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Paul Raeburn, sitting in for Ira Flatow.

We're talking, this hour, about the difficult rescue effort for the 33 miners still trapped in that gold and copper mine in Chile. My guests are Rudy Lyon, research and development manager for Center Rock in Berlin, Pennsylvania, a company that is down in Chile working on the Plan B drill at the mine. And Davitt McAteer, a vice president of sponsored programs at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia, and also former chief of the Mining Safety and Health Administration.

Now, David McAteer, this is a copper and gold mine. It seems to me, without checking all the records here, that what we usually hear about in this country is coal mines. Is one more dangerous than the other, and why does it seem to be coal mines here and something else down in Chile?

Mr. McATEER: Well, there are two types of mining, essentially coal and others -typically called hard rock or metal and non-metal mines.

The coal mines have two additional elements of danger that these other mines tend to not have, and that is that you have the existence of coal, which is a fuel in and of itself. And the second is you have the existence of methane gas, which forms naturally with some of the coal formations.

Those two presences mean that you have, in effect, a fuel that is right there. So that if you...

RAEBURN: Methane gas is natural gas, basically.

Mr. McATEER: Methane gas is just exactly like a not-so-pure in a more pure form than you get out of your stove.

RAEBURN: Right.

Mr. McATEER: So if you have a spark or some source of ignition, then you can ignite the methane gas, and in point of fact, you could ignite the coal dust.

And that means that, typically, we have more problems in the coal mines from a safety and health standpoint than we do in the copper and gold mines, albeit there are some difficulties with the copper and gold mines, particularly at this level, with the roof collapsing and with tunnels collapsing. But you don't have that first problem, and that problem of explosion that is so much, so profound, and we just suffered the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in southern West Virginia back in April.

RAEBURN: Right. Now, is there any methane in these other metal mines?

Mr. McATEER: Typically there's not. There are some methane - some metal mines that have - hard rock mines that have some methane it. But as a rule, that's the exception, and it's only under unusual circumstances. Typically, you don't have that kind of problem.

RAEBURN: Well, let's take a call. Tom(ph) in Boise, Idaho. Hi, Tom.

TOM (Caller): Hi, how's it going?

RAEBURN: Good, go ahead.

TOM: Yeah, I was just curious on what kind of material is used for the bits when drilling through this extremely hard rock to get to the coal or the gold or whatever.

Mr. LYON: That's a I guess I'll field that one.

RAEBURN: Our drilling specialist, go ahead.

Mr. LYON: Yeah, most of the times, the bits are steel bodies, alloy steel, heat-treated to a pretty decent hardness or strength, and they're tipped with tungsten carbide buttons - spherical tipped. We can pick carbide of various mixtures of toughness and strength or hardness for wear resistance.

And in this case, actually the 12-inch bit that we broke through with actually has a diamond covering on it. It's called a polycrystalline diamond compact, and it's a pretty unique process, where they're able to fuse synthetic diamond onto the top of these carbide inserts.

RAEBURN: So this is a pretty complicated piece of equipment here.

Mr. LYON: I don't know. I've been working around it a long time. So it's sort of lost its luster, you know.

RAEBURN: And didn't one of these break down there? Thanks for the call, Tom. You opened up a new line of discussion here. Thank you.

Mr. LYON: Yes, the 12-inch, the first 12-inch bit through with got to about I think it was 280 meters. And the drill string, which is the pipe going down to the drill, started to torque and jam. And we pulled the drill string out of the hole, which is called tripping from the hole. And we found that the front face of the bit had broken off.

In trying to understand what happened, we went back down in the hole with a camera. And we understood that about, oh, I think it was about 10 feet before this location, where the bit broke, we went through some kind of a metal structure. We don't know if it was a roof bolt or some remnant of a previous mine working in that area.

RAEBURN: It's a tricky business.

Mr. LYON: Especially when you're drilling in areas where you just don't know what you're up against, and one of the challenges that we also have is that this hole begins its entrance into surface at a 10-degree angle, and then it actually dips almost, actually does dip to vertical at the point of entry into the mine. So that's a tricky situation for us, too, because our drill string is bending, and it's different torques and loads on the drilling head that are things that we don't have experience with.

RAEBURN: Davitt McAteer, I want to talk a little bit, before we run out of time, about what created this situation in the first place.

Now, you've had a long record of looking at safety issues and what should be done and shouldn't be done. I don't know if you know enough about Chilean regulations to comment on that, but maybe, you know, we could contrast what's going on down there with what kind of safety regulations we have here. This should be the place where one might guess that we do all the right things and are as safe as possible.

Mr. McATEER: Well, it should be. Unfortunately, that's not been the case. And the Chilean regulations are pretty comprehensive for this type of mining. They have a pretty thorough and comprehensive safety requirement.

In this instance, the tunnel that was used to get down to the ore body had a collapse on it midway down and caused eight miners to be trapped. Our regulations...

RAEBURN: The collapse is some distance from where the miners are, I guess. Is that right?

Mr. McATEER: That's correct. Our regulations call for there to be two tunnels. That is one single entry, first entry and a second to exhaust to get the miners out. That requirement doesn't seem to be in effect, and I haven't looked at it from that standpoint, but that requirement certainly didn't seem to have application here. But that requirement is in the standards in the United States.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned, the Upper Big Branch Mine in April exploded and killed 29 miners, and I'm working on the investigation of that. And there we're finding that some of the regulations in question of this regard to preventive methods of preventing accidents that don't appear to have been followed.

RAEBURN: So the regulations were in place, but they weren't followed.

Mr. McATEER: Thats what it appears at the moment. We're still in the midst of the investigation, but there's some evidence, a suggestion that a mine explodes, this size, with two-and-a-half miles of explosion area, suggests to us that the regulations that we know that are in place to keep the mine from having such a large explosion, those regulations didn't work.

Now, whether that meant they weren't followed or how they weren't followed, that's a question we're having to address during the investigation. But those regulations didn't have the effect of deterring the accident from spreading two and a half miles and killing a large number of miners.

RAEBURN: So are the U.S. regulations adequate? Leaving aside for a minute, the question of whether they're followed; are they adequate if they were followed?

Mr. McATEER: As a rule, yes. The regulations in the United States, are very comprehensive. It's probably the strongest occupational safety and health law in this country and in the world. But the fact is that they didn't stop this explosion from occurring, and so we have to learn how to tweak those and improve those.

As we change technologies in the mine and speed up the mining process, the technologies in the area of safety and health tend to lag behind. They're a following indicator, and so they don't get caught up.

And one of the things we're looking at is how do we get new technologies on the ground so as to prevent these explosions from: one, occurring; but if they do occur, how do we keep them very limited.

RAEBURN: Yeah, I mean, I'm tempted to just step back from my notes and my prepared questions and just say, you know, the it's amazing to me that with all the automation and technology we have now, we still have to send people down into what seem like really miserable, unpleasant and unsafe circumstances to get the fuel we need.

Why can't some machine do all this?

Mr. McATEER: Well, in point of fact, we have made tremendous progress in terms of our ability to produce coal and our ability to produce at a very high rate of speed.

We produce about a billion, two tons of coal a year, and we've done that by introducing long-walled mines that are mines that have a sheer or planer that comes along and knocks the coal down, and it's carried out by a conveyor.

It used to take some-300 men in a mine to produce a million tons of coal. Now that number is down to 10 to 30. So the numbers have been reduced. What's problematic here is this mine had not only the long wall, but it also had two development sections.

RAEBURN: The long wall means what?

Mr. McATEER: The long wall is the panel that has a plane, like a planer or a shear to cut the face of the coal. So the...

RAEBURN: Long maul, M-A-U-L, is the word?

Mr. McATEER: No, wall, W-A-L-L.

RAEBURN: Oh, okay, I was right the first time.

Mr. McATEER: Sorry?

RAEBURN: Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. LYON: And the wall has a planer or shear on it, and it's dragged across the thousand-foot face of the mine wall. And it cuts the coal, which falls onto a conveyer belt, which is pulled by a chain and is conveyed to another conveyer belt out of the mine. And the wall is supported by a series of hydraulic jacks, the same that you put your car up on, except there may be 500 of them sitting next to one another, and that protects the miner, and those all move in a snakelike formation forward. And that kind of - really reduces the amount of -reduces the roof falls that you get, reduces the amount of people that you have to have underground, and it increases your capacity.

Unfortunately, there were two other sections operating in this mine at the same time to develop a new long-wall panel, and those sections had a number of miners there. But we have, over the last century, tried to develop a scheme to restrict the size of explosions in mines. So we will, for example, ventilate the mine to remove the methane and remove the (unintelligible) gases. And we'd also put down and have a system where we place rock dust, which is essentially ground up limestone that's put with the coal to make it inert so that it doesn't explode.

What historically have been the problem is that methane explodes in a small formation, and then that methane explosion is transferred over to the coal dust, which is kicked up when you have an explosion. And that coal dust is much more powerful than - typically, the coal dust explosion, much more powerful than the methane. And it's - there's a suggestion here, given the size of the explosion here, that that's what happened. We're not we're not finished in our investigation but we're looking at that as one possibility. And we should have had these layers of protections, so even if you had an explosion on the face, on the long wall, or had a small ignition of methane, you wouldn't have it spread out. And this explosion spread out, and that's the issue we're looking at currently.

RAEBURN: Well, thanks so much for taking the time to walk us through these things. My guests have been Rudy Lyon, research and development manager for Center Rock in Berlin, Pennsylvania, a company working on the plan B drill at the Chilean mine. Thanks for joining us, Rudy.

Mr. LYON: You're welcome, Paul.

RAEBURN: Good luck to your people down there. And we hope you have some happy news for us sometime.

Mr. LYON: Hopefully. Thank you for the invitation.

RAEBURN: And Davitt McAteer, vice president of sponsored programs at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia. He's also a former chief of the Mining Safety and Health Administration. Thanks for joining us, Davitt.

Mr. McATEER: You're welcome and thank you for having me.

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