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Mine Safety Improves Since Quecreek

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It's been 10 years since the Quecreek Mine accident in Somerset County, which ended with all nine trapped miners being rescued. That incident has led to many changes and improved safety in Pennsylvania mines, according to the man who led the rescue, Joe Sbaffoni, the Director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Mine Safety.

The Quecreek accident occurred when workers inadvertently breached an adjacent flooded mine, sending millions of gallons of water into the active mine, trapping the nine men for 77 hours.

The miners were unaware they were working with outdated maps, thinking they were 300 feet away from the abandoned mine. Regulations at that time allowed for work within 200 feet of an adjacent mine.

Shortly after the accident then Governor Mark Schweiker created a commission on mine safety, which led to some changes. Mining operators getting within 500 feet of another mine had to demonstrate it was safe to continue work. A central mine map repository was established, and stricter permitting procedures were adopted.

Those changes then led in 2009 to an overhaul of the commonwealth's Mine Safety Act, the first major change of the law since 1961.

"[The new act] memorialized a lot of the changes we made after Quecreek, and also, up until that point, the only way the law could be changed was through the legislature," Sbaffoni said. "The Mine Safety Act created a Mine Safety Board, so we now have the ability to promulgate rules and regulations to deal with situations," and not wait for the state House and Senate.

The board, which includes three representatives apiece from the mining industry and the United Mine Workers, has the authority to put in place regulations that keep pace with changing mine safety technology and to act quickly to implement necessary improvements and precautionary measures.

Sbaffoni said there has not been an underground fatality in Pennsylvania in three years. "One injury in a mine is one too many," Sbaffoni said, "but when you look at working in a mine and the dynamic and the ever-changing conditions and the environment, and then you look at the statistics, we've come a long way when it comes to mine safety."

He still he admits they can't avert all accidents.

"Things are going to happen, there's no question. You're dealing with Mother Nature and conditions change by the minute," Sbaffoni said, "but if you do things the way you're supposed to, follow regulations and rules, always follow safe work practices, you've got a darn good chance of coming home at the end of each shift. That's the number one goal."