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Feds find hundreds of unsafe mine seals

BEAVER — Hundreds of unsafe seals have been discovered in underground coal mines across the country, federal mine safety regulators said last week.

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors cited operators for seals with integrity problems, improper or nonexistent mortar and damaged methane-testing pipes.

MSHA ordered operators to fix the problems, which were uncovered during an inspection sweep prompted by two seal-related explosions that killed 17 miners last year.

“This came to light after Sago and Darby, and we needed to go out and see what we were dealing with,” said Kevin Stricklin, MSHA’s acting administrator for coal mine safety and health.

MSHA officials revealed the inspection findings last week during a two-day “Ventilation Summit” at the National Mine Health and Safety Academy outside Beckley.

Over the last year, state and federal mine safety regulators have scrambled to address problems with mine seals raised by the disasters at the Sago Mine in West Virginia and the Kentucky Darby Mine in eastern Kentucky.

On Jan. 2, 2006, 12 miners died at the Sago Mine in Upshur County after lightweight foam block seals failed to contain an explosion inside a sealed-off part of the International Coal Group mine.

On May 20, 2006, five miners died at the Kentucky Darby Mine when a cutting torch ignited methane that had leaked from behind a poorly constructed seal.

After the Darby disaster, MSHA ordered a temporary moratorium on the use of “alternative” seals, or those built using materials other than standard concrete blocks.

Agency officials later more than doubled the strength requirements for any new “alternative” seals, and MSHA faces a congressionally mandated deadline of December to finalize a new rule for stronger seals.

At the same time, MSHA announced in July 2006 that it would conduct “in-mine evaluations of existing alternative seals.”

“Existing seals will be inspected by MSHA to verify that correct construction practices were followed,” said the July order by then-MSHA coal administrator Ray McKinney.

McKinney also ordered mine operators to “conduct an assessment” of the air behind existing seals “to determine the potential for an explosion and to assess seal integrity.”

In cases where sealed areas were found to have between 3 percent and 20 percent methane — numbers that built in a safety factor on top of methane’s explosive range of between 5 percent and 15 percent — operators were to “take remedial actions,” the MSHA order said.

Where mine operators or MSHA found a “high risk” to miners’ safety, the agency said it would require periodic monitoring of seals and the gases behind them.

Complete details of the findings of MSHA’s seal inspections were not released at last week’s agency meeting, and were not immediately available. But agency officials described the problems as serious.

“We found a lot of seals with integrity problems,” Stricklin said.

Erik Sherer, a senior MSHA engineer, said that figuring out what to do about the estimated 14,000 alternative seals already in underground mines is “probably the biggest issue” the agency is facing.

“We have found many of these seals that were poorly built — not even to the [20 pounds per square inch] standard,” Sherer said. “Actually, we’re just happy if there is mortar between the joints.

“We have issued literally hundreds of violations for problems we found with these seals.”

John Fredland, another MSHA engineer, compared the current issue with mine seals to concerns over coal-waste dams in the immediate aftermath of the Feb. 26, 1972, Pittston Coal dam collapse that killed 125 people on Buffalo Creek in Logan County.

“At that point, we really weren’t paying much attention to dams, and I see parallels here with seals,” Fredland said. “The industry is kind of in a state of turmoil over seals, and MSHA is, too.”

At MSHA’s technical support center in Pittsburgh, Fredland and other engineers have been charged with reviewing any requests by mine operators to install new seals using alternative construction materials.

Industry officials have been complaining vigorously, Fredland said, that the reviews are taking too long. Fredland agreed, and said that there is a backlog of applications that MSHA is trying to reduce.

So far, MSHA engineers have reviewed only 54 of the 92 seal plans that operators have submitted, Fredland said. Only one plan has received formal approval, he said.

In response, Fredland said, MSHA “invented this thing called provisional approvals.”

MSHA is giving seal plans “provisional approval,” allowing mine operators to move forward while the agency waits for additional technical engineering information it believes it needs to conduct a complete review.

So far, 10 seal plans have received this type of approval.

“We would like to get this to a point where it is more streamlined,” Fredland said. “We don’t want to be the hang-up on this thing, but we want to end up with safe conditions.”


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