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Miners glad to be digging again at Quecreek

| Saturday, Nov. 23, 2002

SOMERSET (AP) — For the first time in nearly four months, Wendell Horner went to work as a shuttle car operator at the Quecreek mine.

"It felt really good to be loading coal," said Horner, 44, after his shift ended Friday afternoon. "Everybody's fired up and ready to go to work, to put this behind us."

Mining resumed Thursday afternoon after the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued Black Wolf Coal Co. a permit. Mining had been halted since the July 24 accident in which nine miners became trapped underground for 77 hours after they dug into an adjacent, abandoned, flooded mine.

About 50 Black Wolf workers are at Quecreek now. The nine rescued miners have said they don't plan to return, and another half-dozen also haven't returned.

"They're all back that want to be back," said Black Wolf spokesman John Weir.

Although the mining has just resumed, Black Wolf workers have been at Quecreek — and even in parts of the mine — doing cleanup and other work since shortly after the accident. Horner said that eased the transition back to mining.

"It was weird at first, but today it felt good," Horner said.

Black Wolf will operate three shifts a day, five-and-a-half days a week, Weir said.

Miners are working in a section of the mine about 2,500 feet from where the flood occurred. The Pennsylvania DEP has mapped out strict guidelines on the areas that can be mined in the first six months at Quecreek.

Miners also are drilling horizontal bores 2,000 feet ahead to make sure they are mining in a safe area, as called for by the new state permit.

The state now is requiring a 500-foot barrier between the miners and the abandoned Saxman mine, 200 feet more than regulations required at the time of the flood. Investigators believe the flood occurred because the miners used outdated maps and were right next to Saxman when they believed they were still about 300 feet away.

"I feel more confident right now than I ever did because of the extra steps the state and the company have taken," said Horner, a miner for 10 years. "No question about it."

"They had a real good shift last night," Weir said yesterday.

"Everybody's glad to be back at work, it's a great feeling to see the coal coming off," Weir said, sitting in his Dodge pickup, next to conveyors that carried coal to a machine that sorts it into different sizes and filters out debris.

Weir estimates that the Quecreek mine has 13 or 14 years of productivity remaining. The mine produces about 50,000 tons of coal a month, but the company plans to "go slow, keep it safe," Weir said.

Black Wolf already has installed seals, pumps and drains where the miners breached the Saxman mine to offer an extra buffer should any water continue to build up in the chamber and threaten the rest of the Quecreek Mine.

The Department of Community and Economic Development is working with PBS Coals, the owner of Quecreek Mine, on financing the purchase of new mining equipment that was destroyed in the flood.

"We're just glad to be back loading coal," said crew leader Harry Gula, 44, as he prepared to enter the mine for his evening shift.

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