JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – With thousands of lives at stake and a state honeycombed with abandoned coal mines, Quecreek miners, who electrified the nation when they survived 78 hours trapped in a flooded mine, scored a small victory when they convinced an investigation panel to hold additional hearings in the evening, closer to the site.

Quecreek mine has been closed since the July accident, in which nine miners were trapped 245 feet underground.

“This accident shouldn’t have happened,” United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) Safety Committeeman Jeffery Mihallik told an Oct. 3 hearing. Six of the nine trapped miners attended the hearing.

Calling for vigorous enforcement of existing mine safety laws, Mihallik pointed out that under their contracts, union miners have the right to say “no” to an unsafe condition as well as speak candidly to mine inspectors. Non-union miners, including those at Quecreek, do not have such protections. “They don’t have a choice like we do,” Mihallik said. “It’s do that or go home. So there are, in effect, two sets of rules.”

UMWA Pennsylvania Safety Committeeman Timothy Hroblak said that at Emerald and Cumberland mines, large union operations, the procedure is to drill ahead of the coal-digging machinery to ensure that miners do not hit a “void” or abandoned mine. He also noted that the state can request a survey during the permitting process if there is any question or hint of a nearby abandoned mine.

UMWA Executive Board member Daniel Kane asked the panel, “How is that there is a declining workforce in mining and increasing injuries and fatalities?” He linked the decline in safety to the big energy conglomerates’ fracturing of mining operations into little mines operated by subsidiaries.

Quecreek Creek is owned by Wolf Creek mining, a subsidiary of PBS Coals, Inc. State records indicate that PBS was cited for 90 safety violations in the last two years, including two that contributed to a December 2000 death. Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) records show PBS has an accident rate three times the national average.

Beverly Braverman, attorney and executive director of the Mountain Watershed Association, testified of the danger abandoned, unknown mines pose to the community. The state permitting system is flawed, she charged.

“This panel is completely industry-driven,” she told the World. “Pennsylvania has good, solid legislation on the books but there is no political will to enforce them.”

Attorney Howard Messer, speaking for the miners, who are under a “gag” order imposed by Disney, which is making a movie about the rescue, spoke of the miners’ disappointment with the panel. “The governor promised the ‘what and why’ so that it doesn’t happen again. … To keep going this way is playing Russian Roulette with miners’ lives.”

Leslie Mayhugh, wife of miner Harry Mayhugh, had had enough. “I don’t understand how you are going to find a cure if you don’t have all the facts,” she told the panel. “You are supposed to be here to protect lives, not coal. … Why is this hearing during working hours, far from where most miners live? You need to be in Somerset with an evening meeting so everyone has a chance to speak and bring out the facts.”

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Conn Hallinan
Conn Hallinan

Conn Hallinan is a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus. A retired journalism professor, he previously was an editor of People's World when it was a West Coast publication.