WASHINGTON - The accident that flooded the Quecreek mine in Pennsylvania last summer, riveting the nation to a rescue mission that saved nine miners, could have been avoided if the mining companies had realized they were using out-of-date maps, federal safety investigators said yesterday.
Two mining companies and a surveying company were negligent for relying on an inaccurate map of an adjacent, flooded mine that had been abandoned 30 years earlier, according to the report issued by the investigators from the Department of Labor.
The map the companies used was undated and had not been certified by an engineer; later investigation showed that it had been completed in about 1957 but that another 421,000 tons of coal had been mined by the time the mine closed in 1964. The mine had opened in 1913.
The investigators said the root cause of the accident was that no final map of the abandoned mine was readily available. Months after the accident, a final map was found in a museum, investigators said.
"Quecreek has unveiled a number of things," said David D. Lauriski, the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. "One is that if you have any suspicion at all, there are other ways to get information." One of these is to measure production figures and royalty figures against the maps to see if they agree, he said.
On July 24, 2002, a coal mine machine operator broke through to an adjacent mine, filled with water, that the map said was 450 feet away. Nine miners were trapped for up to 78 hours; rescuers sank an emergency shaft, 30 inches in diameter, through a nearby pasture to reach them, raising them 240 feet in a capsule. Tourists still visit the site, about 60 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
Since the rescue, which was broadcast live on television, Congress has appropriated $10 million that the government is using to inventory old maps and move them to computers and to develop technologies for finding mines for which there are no maps.
A toll-free hot line has been established where people with old mine maps can call and then send them in for copying. The number is 888-753-9427. One problem with that effort is determining whether the maps are correct, Lauriski said. Mines tend to grow over the years, and not all the "rooms" created by mining are mapped.
Up until the time of the Quecreek accident, mine operators reported about a dozen times a year inadvertently contacting abandoned mines that were flooded or filled with oxygen-depleted air, he said. Such reports are down since last summer's accident, Lauriski said, probably because miners are being more careful.
In a statement, a lawyer for PBS Coals, one of the companies cited for negligence, stressed that no intentional wrongdoing had been found and that wet conditions just before the breakthrough were not a clue to what was about to happen.
The company and its consultants "vigorously dispute any allegation of negligence," according to the lawyer, Vincent J. Barbera.
"They relied on the best information that was available at that time," he said.
Randy Musser, the president of Musser Engineering, which prepared a permit application showing that the old mine was 450 feet away, said in a telephone interview that the Mine Safety and Health Administration "made statements to us, they believed we had done the work in accordance with the practices and standards in existence at the time the work was prepared."
"They came across as though they had to issue a citation just because there was additional mining that had not been shown on that map, even though they're not sure how we would have determined that at the time," Musser said.
He said procedures had changed since the accident.
A message left for an executive of Black Wolf Coal Co., which operates the mine, was not returned.
Despite the severity of the accident, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, part of the Labor Department, found that the mine was cited for violations only about one-third as often as the national average for underground coal mines, and had a rate of lost work time due to nonfatal injuries that was just a little over half of the national average.