The Quecreek Mine “miracle” is best remembered for the “nine for nine” rescue.
But for those who put on a miner’s helmet and head underground daily, the near-disaster may be best remembered for the historic safety and regulatory changes it sparked in the years that followed in Pennsylvania. Such laws may have saved countless more mine workers in the decade since, said Joseph Sbaffoni, the Department of Environmental Protection’s mine safety bureau chief.
“There’s no question Quecreek made a difference here. It changed how we look at abandoned mines ... and the research process involved for companies who want to mine somewhere,” Sbaffoni added. “It spurred change to make our mines safer.”
Today, companies review mine maps, property and tax records near proposed mines during their planning process to ensure mapping accuracy. The lack of such research in 2002 caused mine workers to accidentally drill into a long-abandoned adjacent mine, allowing to rush in a wave of dirty mine water and trap the Quecreek Nine for 77 hours.
When crews go underground into a mine today, companies know what lies on the other side of the mine walls, said John Unger, who was among the Quecreek Nine.
“Absolutely, it changed things,” said Unger, who continues to work in the trade, loading coal trucks at Roytown Mine in Somerset County. “They took what they learned from (Quecreek) and made it better for miners.”
Sbaffoni said the 2008 Bituminous Coal Mines Act tops the list. Dubbed the Mine Safety bill, it was the state’s first major reform to a more than century-old mining law, he added.
The law still contained references to long-abandoned 19th-century deep mining practices, usage of animals and stables in mines, then-Gov. Ed Rendell said when he signed its update into law in 2008.
But regulations aimed at protecting the mine workers were its biggest focus.
The act changed mine oversight. It also brought safety into mine regulations like never before in the commonwealth, Sbaffoni said.
It created a seven-member safety commission comprised of three coal mine union members, three coal company representatives and the DEP secretary. The commission was given the power to address rule-making changes and new technologies on a quarterly basis.
“Now, if something needs updated, it goes to them, rather than wait for the Legislature,” he added.
Sbaffoni said he believes Pennsylvania has “a model program now” that others are following.
“We haven’t had a mine fatality in Pennsylvania since June 2009,” he said.
By comparison, mine safety statistics show Pennsylvania had 12 fatalities between 2005 and 2008 – including five in 2008.
“Our job at (the Bureau of) Mine Safety is to make sure every miner goes home to their families at the end of each shift,” Sbaffoni said. “Coal mining is a hazardous occupation – we know that. But it doesn’t have to be unsafe.”
Still, United Mineworkers of America spokesman Phil Smith noted there’s plenty of room for improvement in coal fields nationwide.
“There have been some positive steps. And the other good thing we’ve seen in recent years is that more companies, particularly the big ones like Consol Energy and Alpha Natural Resources, are showing they are really trying to do the right thing when it comes to safety,” Smith said, noting it is hit and miss with smaller ones.
“We go to Congress all the time,” he said, calling a push for stricter federal laws an ongoing and often painfully slow process until “something terrible occurs.”
Quecreek caught the nation’s attention – and could have ended tragically, he noted.
The 2006 mine explosion in Sago, W.Va., is another prime example. That time, only one of 13 miners trapped inside survived.
“The truth about mine safety,” Smith said, “is that you don’t end up seeing laws put into place until someone is badly hurt or killed. Just about every law ... has been written in the blood of dead miners.”