How Safe Are Today's Coal Mines?
NEAL CONAN, host:
Early Monday morning a powerful explosion at a coal mine in Tallmansville, West Virginia, trapped 13 men in a tunnel more than 260 feet underground. It's been more than 33 hours since the explosion. Rescuers' attempts to contact the miners have thus far gone unanswered. Joining us now is Joseph Sbaffoni, director of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Deep Mine Safety. His agency was closely involved in the 2002 rescue of nine men who spent three days in a water-filled mine shaft in Somerset, Pennsylvania. He joins us now from his office in Pittsburgh.
Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. JOSEPH SBAFFONI (Director, Bureau of Deep Mine Safety, Pennsylvania): Nice to be on.
CONAN: Mine officials in Tallmansville say they're very discouraged by the results of air samples that they'd found. What dangers generally exist in mines in terms of air quality? How is the air ventilated?
Mr. SBAFFONI: Well, normally a mine is ventilated by a large ventilation vent, and air is drawn in from outside and ventilates the areas of the mine. And then it's drawn out with a fan and blowed--you know, exhausted to the surface. In this situation, there was an incident where evidently methane was ignited and caused an explosion. In doing so, it could have created some fires. You know, carbon monoxide's a product of incomplete combustion. Also, when the explosion occurred, there was evidently damage to some of the ventilation controls, which in turn would have short-circuited the air, and the air is not traveling in its normal course. So you have areas of the mine that are probably not being adequately ventilated, and you still have some of the aftermath of the explosion and possibly some areas that are still smoldering.
CONAN: The mine was closed over the New Year's holiday. Does shutting down a mine like that add to the danger of gas collecting?
Mr. SBAFFONI: I would say no because, in most cases, the fans are left operating, even when the mine is idle. And usually when a mine is closed, somebody does still go underground usually daily to make examinations, what we would call a fire run. I don't know the exact circumstances for this mine, but I think maybe what might have had more of an effect is that there was a very large thunderstorm going through and what seemed like a very low drop in the barometer. Barometric pressure can definitely have an effect on the ventilation in a coal mine, and, also, if there's areas where there is methane or even--actually just cause the coal to liberate more methane.
CONAN: As you say, we don't know exactly what happened down there to cause the explosion. Methane levels don't seem to be high, according to the samples they've taken thus far. Could anything else conceivably have caused such an explosion?
Mr. SBAFFONI: You know, there are some other gases that could, you know, be involved in an explosion, but it's highly unlikely. Normally it's--when you have an explosion in an active coal mine, it's usually the result of something igniting methane.
CONAN: Of course, in the old days they used to keep a canary in the coal mine, the famous example. What sort of devices do they use today?
Mr. SBAFFONI: Oh, very--the mining business today is very high tech, and, you know, all the certified officials, the mine examiners carry electronic detectors that check for methane, low oxygen, carbon monoxide. And they're used on a regular basis.
CONAN: Given all that technology, does that explain why mines are safer than they used to be?
Mr. SBAFFONI: Oh, there's no question. I think the technology has probably played the biggest role, and another role is the fact that our miners today are very well trained and educated in, you know, the hazards of mining. We have a very experienced work force at this stage, and I think that has a lot to do with it. But technology definitely has played a big part.
CONAN: In the construction of a mine, would the miners construct safety areas, emergency places they could escape to in the event of a problem?
Mr. SBAFFONI: Normally they do not. I mean, the mines are designed so that you have escape routes, intake escapeways and travelways that you're supposed to use in case of an emergency. All the miners are trained, and they have what they call firefighting and evacuation plans. They travel the evacuation routes on a regular basis. So there's a lot of things that go into play to--as far as training is concerned, concerning the--in the event that you had to make an escape.
CONAN: As we mentioned, you were involved in some degree at the 2002 incident at Quecreek in Pennsylvania. This, of course, quite different. That was a water problem there.
Mr. SBAFFONI: Correct. You know, the response and so forth are very similar, but the incidents--very different. At Quecreek, we were involved with a water inundation from an old mine. The miners were unable to escape and, really, didn't have to put rescuers into the mine. We put a plan into place to try to rescue the miners, and we were successful in doing so. The incident in West Virginia, again, involves an explosion and, you know, a lot of problems with the atmosphere now after the explosion.
CONAN: Well, we can only pray for the survival of those 13 men trapped under the ground.
Mr. SBAFFONI: Well, there's no question the mining industry is a very close-knit industry, and we here in Pennsylvania--our hearts and prayers go out to the miners and their families, and we're all hoping for a successful end to this.
CONAN: Joseph Sbaffoni, thank you very much for being with us.
Mr. SBAFFONI: You're welcome.
CONAN: Joseph Sbaffoni is director of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Deep Mine Safety. He joined us by phone from his office in Pittsburgh.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.