Digital maps to point to safer mining

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The nine Pennsylvania coal miners who were trapped underground for four days last July might have avoided the life-threatening ordeal if accurate digital maps of the mine had been available to show that the miners were drilling into an abandoned and flooded mine shaft.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration has up to $10 million it can use this year to digitize mine maps, a project intended to help avert catastrophes like the one last summer at Quecreek Mine, said Rodney Brown, an MSHA spokesman.

However, MSHA has not completed its Quecreek report and is working on ensuring the accuracy of its maps, Brown said. "What is important is being able to detect the workings of old mines underground to prevent accidents like what happened at Quecreek," he said. "We're so early in this process we haven't laid out a specific plan."

Once work does start, MSHA officials will face several challenges. One problem is that paper mine maps are in offices scattered nationwide and are managed by mining companies and federal, state and local governments, said Michael Price, a mining consultant in Moab, Utah, and former mining and earth sciences manager at ESRI Inc., a geographic information systems vendor. Additionally, many maps of the same mines have contradictory information, and some are annotated with handwritten notes of questionable accuracy.

"The secret with any kind of automated digitizing is you have to have a pretty clean, consistent map," Price said. "Some of these mine maps are 150 years old."

Most states have initiatives under way to digitize mine maps, said mining consultant Mathew Oommen, senior project manager and director of information technology services with Marston & Marston Inc. in St. Louis. "Some of the states are doing a better job than others," he said. "Everybody's got these huge repositories of paper maps."

Digitizing the maps is more complicated than it might seem, Price said. Most states have their own coordinate systems for plotting information. In fact, most use three systems to cover different regions to compensate for the Earth's curvature, which distorts flat maps.

Once the differences in coordinate systems are accounted for, however, digitized maps can add layers of safety and efficiency to mining operations, he said. According to MSHA, Quecreek flooded when water held in the adjacent Saxman Mine burst through the wall, trapping the miners 230 feet underground. Maps that the mine operators used apparently didn't accurately depict Saxman.

If accurate maps had been available at the click of a mouse, "the mine operator would have known the limit of the earlier mining activity," Price said. "They thought they knew where it was."

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