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Project seeks to preserve state's original maps of mines

| Saturday, March 1, 2014, 9:03 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Ashley Cox, 26, a conservation technician, works on mining maps from the 1920's that are being restored at Pitt Archive Service System in Point Breeze on Wednesday afternoon, January 15, 2014. The maps are being archived to be included in the Pennsylvania Mine Map Atlas — an ambitious project to digitize and make available online all underground mine maps that exist for the state. The project grew out of a response to the 2002 Quecreek Mine accident in Somerset County.

An aging collection of cloth-backed maps of what lies beneath Western Pennsylvania could help with subsidence issues, land development and gas drilling ventures.

“These were the original mining workings that were used,” Jeanann Haas, head of Special Collections and Preservation at the University of Pittsburgh, said of the about 800 maps the school acquired since 1991 as part of its Consol Energy Inc. Mine, Maps and Records Collection. “That's what makes them so important.”

University Archives began working with the state Department of Environmental Protection in 2007 to preserve the maps — which can be 4 to 6 feet wide and 30-feet long — so they can be digitally scanned and included in the Pennsylvania Mine Map Atlas.

The online database houses about 14,000 mine maps. The goal is to upload 60,000 maps DEP has and then to add collections such as Pitt's Consol maps.

DEP awarded $1.65 million in the summer to six colleges and universities to help with the work.

Pitt will use $225,000 from the DEP to continue working on the Consol maps. It is the only recipient doing preservation work.

Students and staff at California University of Pennsylvania, which received $85,934; Indiana University of Pennsylvania, which got $484,631; and St. Vincent College, which received $110,832, will use grant money to help “geo-reference” 7,200 maps, digitize 3,100 maps and scan 26,900 maps.

The goal is to transform two-dimensional, printed maps into three-dimensional, digital versions that show detailed underground mines from the past in relation to the surface today.

“We really want to get these opportunities into our students' hands so they have real-world experience,” said Thomas Mueller, an earth science professor heading Cal U's project. “Our students get excited because they know the importance of this project, and that it will be important in the future.”

About 90 students in Cal U's geographic information system and geology classes will geo-reference maps with actual locations or coordinates, Mueller said.

“Mining is such a big industry in Pennsylvania,” he said. “This will allow ready information, God forbid, if something happens.”

Such an incident prompted the project, said Matt Cavanaugh, a mine-permit compliance specialist in the DEP's California district office who is the technical lead on the mine-map program.

“This started in 2002 after the Quecreek Mine accident,” said Cavanaugh, referring to the July 2002 incident in Somerset County where nine miners were trapped underground for days after accidentally boring into an abandoned mine shaft filled with water.

“There was a big push to get all of these maps located,” he said. “Our goal is to locate every mine map we can, get them scanned and online for the public and industry.”

Mine safety is only one area where the project can pay dividends, Cavanaugh said. Planning for oil and gas drilling is another.

The project will certainly help with mine-subsidence insurance, he said.

“We get calls on a daily basis from people to see if a home or business is undermined,” said Cavanaugh, who supervises a staff of six.

More than 1 million homes statewide sit above mines. Users could search whether their property is above or near a mine, and construction crews could make better decisions for building.

“It's definitely a needed project,” Cavanaugh said.

Jason Cato is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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