GLOBAL JOURNALIST: Mine disasters capture the world's attention

Friday, April 9, 2010 | 11:28 a.m. CDT; updated 10:08 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: On either side of the planet in the past two weeks, mine disasters have captured the public’s attention. In China’s Shanxi province, 153 miners were trapped when an underground pit flooded. One hundred and fifteen were rescued but 31 were still trapped hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface as deadly gases continued to build up. In another province, 40 miners were killed in an underground explosion. This past Monday, 25 miners were killed when methane gas overwhelmed them in a coal mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. Four are still missing. They were working for the Massey Energy Company, the biggest mining business in central Appalachia and one with a poor record for violations of safety regulations over the years. Mine safety is a serious problem, and it is growing more so abroad where coal is used to produce energy and to make steel. The Massey Company just signed a contract to ship coal to China for its steel business. What is the Chinese government is doing to improve the mine safety record in that country?

David Feickert, mine safety adviser to the Chinese government, Beijing, China: The flooding in the Shanxi mine occurred when the miners at one of the levels broke through into old workings next to the new mine they are building. To bring you right up to date, 115 miners have been rescued; the remaining miners are in extreme danger because they were working at much lower levels. They are still pumping the water out, and methane gas is also a problem.

Loory: How far below the earth’s surface are the trapped miners?

Feickert: I think that they are about 600 meters below, possibly further. It is a bit difficult to tell because this mine is being built at a lot of different levels at the same time. There was a lot of pressure on getting it into production.

Loory: Methane gas is also a problem in the West Virginia mine.

Ellen Smith, owner and managing editor, Mine Safety and Health News, Pittsford, New York: First, I would like to explain that the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Chinese government had reached agreements whereby folks from China came over and got to train and work with people at the Mine Health and Safety Academy in Beckley, West Virginia. I think it was a really good program. Government officials from MSHA also traveled to China and saw some of their best mines. I heard very positive stories about the showcase mines that China has and what they would like to see all their mines become. That said, our government knows what it takes to run a top-notch mine, and unfortunately it was not happening at the Upper Big Branch Mine.

Loory: At the Upper Big Branch Mine there were violations posted the day of the accident.

Smith: MSHA says that those violations have nothing to do with the explosion. My guess is that is correct. One was a trailing cable violation. One was a mine map violation showing the escape ways. Mine maps have to be updated all the time, and they had not put the latest updates in their map. We don’t know exactly how the citations read. We only know the regulations that were violated.

Loory: How can water accumulation or the accumulation of methane gas in mine shafts be dealt with?

Dirk van Zyl, professor of mining engineering, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada: The biggest issue with water is knowing what old mine plans look like and knowing where you are underground so that you can determine when there is a chance to break through. This is an issue that has plagued miners everywhere in the world because many of the old maps either don’t exist or are not accurate.

Loory: Can’t new mapping of old mines be done?

Van Zyl: Yes, but if you have a mine that is filled with water, then you really can’t get down to where you need to do the mapping.

Smith: We had that same problem in the Quecreek Mine in 2002 when the mine flooded and the miners were trapped for 72 hours underground. They ran into old mine workings, and the mine above them was flooded. We do not have accurate maps of where they were mining in the 1940s and 1950s.

Feickert: In China there are illegal mines that are leeched off the large state-owned mines, and they don’t have any maps at all. We don’t yet know whether that was the case in Wangjialing coal mine or whether the maps that are available were properly followed or whether there were boreholes that sunk. It was clear in the case of Wangjialing that the workers saw the water seeping in. They warned the managers, but the managers didn’t act.

Loory: Why is there very poor communication between those working in the mines below and people on the surface? With modern technology, you would think that communication should be pretty easy.

Van Zyl: It has to do with the difficulty in communicating underground. If you think of radio waves on the surface on the earth, it is a lot simpler actually to intercept the radio waves and communicate. If you’re underground, you need a whole different system of communication to actually allow that. You don’t want to be in a position where you have to hard wire everything to have the communications working. If anything happens – like a rock fall – then you could lose your communication. There are new systems coming online that will make this a lot simpler.

Loory: With new communication systems, as methane leakage gets worse, could action be taken to prevent disaster?

Feickert: When miners are trapped and the rescue teams don’t know where they are, the rescue effort is going to be further delayed. If you have a mine explosion, you have to shut off the electricity. There is some hope in using fiber optics. Fiber optics have the advantage of being intrinsically safe because the medium of communication is light. There is a hope that systems can be developed that can survive a serious rock fall or roof collapse.

Loory: Massey has a pretty dismal record of violations of mine safety regulations. It has paid, I think, some huge fines, including a $20 million fine last year. Why isn’t that company improving?

Smith: Safety comes from the top down. When you look at the safest coal mines in the U.S., the safety culture starts with the president of the company. Some of these companies have harsh measures where if miners violate a safety regulation – sometimes two or three times – those miners can get fired. They are very serious about adhering to all safety standards and the law. We did not see that at Massey Company, and we don’t necessarily see this with the head at Massey. Don Blankenship was caught up in a mining industry scandal with a memo where he told production guys not to stop mining coal to help build overcasts or to help fix a ventilation violation; keep mining coal – that is what pays the bills. That got that company in a lot of trouble. He really had to backpedal on that memo. I don’t want to accuse this company of ignoring safety, but when you have memos like that coming from the head of a company, it is pretty damning on how the company is run.

Loory: The Chinese government put out a statement earlier this week calling on local organizations – mine companies as well as local governments – to do a better job of monitoring safety and saying that if they didn’t do a better job, they were going to be punished. Will that have any impact?

Feickert: Yes, it always does have an impact. All of the senior people in the State Administration of Work Safety go out to the provinces and meet with all the local officials and the industry heads. The enduring impact is going to come as they adopt more developed-country style safety management systems.

Loory: Mining is one of the world’s oldest industries and one of the most dangerous. Modern science and technology has a lot to do to improve safety.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Youn-Joo Park, Angela Potrykus, Melissa Ulbricht, Tim Wall and Megan Wiegand. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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Ellis Smith April 10, 2010 | 4:56 a.m.

In 2009 the domestic mining industry set a record low of 34 deaths. Should that be considered good enough? No.

The most deadly year in U. S. mining history, since records have been kept, was 1907: 3,242 deaths.

We're talking occupational hazards, but it might be instructive to compare the number of deaths in 2009 or any recent year to the number of persons killed in domestic highway accidents. Weren't some or most of those vehicular deaths preventable? How many highway accident deaths are there in the United States in just one average DAY?

Stuart, you don't have to go to British Columbia to find a professor of mining engineering: we have them in University of Missouri System. Geez!

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