Wheeling Jesuit University

Explosion's Cause Remains Unknown

The following appeared in the January 3, 2006 Wheeling Intelligencer and is reposted here with permission.


An expert on mine safety and rescue in Wheeling said it is possible lighting triggered an explosion that trapped 13 miners underground in Upshur County, but a "perfect storm" of methane gas and coal dust also had to have been present.

Meanwhile, three mine rescue teams from a locally represented company were on their way to the Sago Mine on Monday afternoon to assist in the rescue efforts.
J. Davitt McAteer, currently vice president of sponsored programs at Wheeling Jesuit University, leads the Robert C. Byrd National Technology Center at the school with programs focusing on mine safety. He helped enact the 1969 Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, founded the Occupational Safety and Health Law Center in the 1970s and served as Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health at the U.S. Department of Labor during the Clinton administration.

"It is possible that lighting sparked the fire," McAteer said. "There have been cases where lighting strikes have entered a mine and gone quite deep."

But he is more bothered that the Sago Mine in Tallmansville, W.Va., was idle over the holidays, and that workers there were restarting equipment Monday. This action in itself could have ignited a fire if methane gas or coal dust were present, he said.

"You would need some combustible (for a fire to spark), and you would get this with methane gas or coal dust," McAteer said. "Methane gas accumulates during idle periods, particularly when there is a change in barometric pressure."

A storm passing through the area just before the explosion could have brought out levels of methane gas "in greater force" within the mine, according to McAteer. The methane would have combined with the oxygen present underground, and this could have caused the explosion when ignited.

"What I am most concerned about is that methane causes a smaller explosion," he added. "But it can suspend fine particles of coal dust in the air which also can explode, and coal makes a more powerful explosion than does methane."

High levels of explosive gas found at the site by mine rescue workers Monday suggest there was a coal dust explosion, according to McAteer.

"It also suggests that the ventilation was knocked out, and that is harder" to deal with during a rescue, he said. "An emissions fire makes the matter worse and really does deplete the oxygen in a big way."

McAteer said the first step for mine rescue workers when they suspect there is a fire within a mine is to take air samples coming out from a fan in the mine. This sample should indicate whether there has been a combustion underground.

Rescuers at the Sago Mine had not been able to get air readings from within the mine late Monday, suggesting that the ventilation system wasn't working.

When rescuers can't use the ventilation system to take air samples, they will have to do all the work by hand, McAteer added. This involves entering the mine and moving forward 100 yards at a time, establishing a fresh air base. They would carry in with them such supplies as two-by-fours, nails and cloth to accomplish their task.

"The enemy of any successful mine rescue is time," he said. "The more time it takes, the less chance they have of succeeding. We just have to pray that they have been successful in barricading themselves if the air is contaminated. If a fire occurs, the oxygen is depleted, and that makes for a worrysome situation.

"I have seen explosions where miners come out, and I pray that that is the case this time. I have also seen others where that has not been the case. I wish Godspeed to rescue teams."

Meanwhile Joe Cerenzia, CONSOL Energy Inc. director of public relations, said CONSOL sent three of its West Virginia mine rescue teams to aid the efforts near Buckhannon, W.Va. Cerenzia said teams from the Loverage Mine near Fairview, the Blacksville Mine near Wana and the Robinson Run Mine near Shinnston, were on their way to the scene Monday afternoon.

According to information from the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training, current West Virginia mining law requires each mine operator to provide mine rescue coverage at every one of its active underground mines as well as requiring training, supplies, rescue stations, rescue equipment and regular inspections.

Additionally, Cerenzia said these teams of miners are well-trained as a rule and, in fact, can train in rescue skills and procedures as often as once a week. The members of the team are all actively working coal miners, and so they are familiar with the inner workings of an underground mine.

Mine rescue teams frequently participate in mine rescue contests, according to information from the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training, because such contests keep their skills honed and allow the workers to solve "problems" that they could encounter in a real situation.

Such contests, Cerenzia said, are sanctioned by mines and government offices, including the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, and are held in actual coal fields to make them more realistic. Also, the contests allow the mine rescue teams to interact with each other, meaning the members can form relationships and learn about each other's working styles because, in an emergency situation, many mine rescue teams come to the scene to assist.

The contests include mine rescue, first aid and emergency medical technician tests as well as bench tests, which gauge the benchman's ability to maintain and repair the portable oxygen devices used by team members.

Cerenzia said CONSOL has 11 teams from mine sites that participate in the mine rescue contests. A miner's place on a rescue team is a voluntary matter, according to Cerenzia, and when the members are on the job as part of the team, they are paid normal wages.

He said when teams respond to a rescue situation, the first thing they do is evaluate the scene, determining where the miners may be and what type of atmosphere is inside the mine. The rescuers will determine if the mine is safe to enter, being sure there is no fire or explosion risk.

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