RUFF CREEK — A dozen or so Pennsylvania state mine inspectors gathered to hear the situation: “Art Vandelay,” the midnight shift mine inspector, had lost contact with those on the surface after radioing in that he noticed smoke at the front end of a mined-out long wall panel.
“Since his call at 7 a.m., which was three hours ago, we have not heard from him,” Marlon Whoolery told the men. “We need you guys to explore the area, find Art, bring him to safety, and investigate the source of the smoke.”
The inspectors inflated their oxygen bags, flipped on their headlamps and entered single-file into a damp, dripping labyrinth filled with dense smoke and unpredictable dead ends.
For Mr. Whoolery, the training director at the Mine Technology and Training Center, it’s just another worst-case scenario of his choosing. Far from endangering the men, the retired miner of 20 years was testing their wit and skill on a state-of-the-art training ground: an above-ground simulator of an underground mine, complete with smoke machines, black tarps and chunky gravel.
The idea for upgraded training came less than a decade ago, as the industry was reeling in the wake of three devastating Appalachian coal mine accidents — Sago and Aracoma mines in West Virginia and Darby Mine in Kentucky — that killed 19 miners in the span of five months in 2006.
Congress responded with the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, or MINER Act, which required companies to develop mine-specific emergency response plans and to station at least two rescue teams within one hour of each mine.
The legislation also called for new grant money to fund a more experiential curriculum for mine rescue teams.
In 2010, the Mine Safety and Health Administration gave nearly $1.5 million to the United Mine Workers of America Career Centers Inc., with a focus on developing programs in two simulators at the training center, an unassuming facility that had expanded on top of a former mine portal in Washington Township, Greene County. The state provided a $4.3 million grant in 2008 for the simulators’ construction.
“When they built this program, it was a step up,” said Jeffrey Stanchek, emergency response training manager for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Mine Safety.
The Mine Technology and Training Center provides skills training to rescue teams in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Indiana and Kentucky. Companies that operate mines in the area — including Alpha Natural Resources, Consol Energy Inc., Arch Coal Inc. and Murray Energy Corp. — regularly bring crews to train, Mr. Whoolery said.
On a recent Tuesday, a fire brigade team from Murray Energy had traveled from Ohio to participate in an exercise in which they located and fought five “fires” — glowing orange lights set up in the vast, smoky abyss of the 40,000-square-foot simulator.
While they huffed and dragged hoses through the imitation shafts, the team’s navigator sat on the other side of a set of doors with a map of the simulator’s layout and charted the crew’s progress.
Meanwhile, the state mine inspectors navigated through what Mr. Whoolery affectionately calls the “smoke mine,” a separate building with unpredictable dead ends and whose ceiling gradually lowers the “deeper” one gets.
The theatrics are designed to impose a degree of real panic, Mr. Stanchek said.
“The reason we do the simulations and make it so tough is to temper the pressure they would actually feel if it was a real deal,” Mr. Stanchek said. “They’re on the clock. They’re being scrutinized for everything. And you’re under a bit of pressure to perform well because there’s a lot of self-pride here.”
The community of rescue teams is a tight-knit brotherhood, he said, and the state gauges the training’s success primarily by appealing to this pride. An array of competitions both in the classroom and in the simulators quizzes virtually every task from pre-shift mine examiners to advanced fire brigades called upon to fight underground mine fires.
Murray Energy has about 1,000 paid volunteer fire brigade members who receive training in both actual mines and mine simulators, company spokesman Gary Broadbent wrote in an email.
Distinct from mine rescue teams, which are trained to respond to any rescue situation, the brigades logged 300 days of training at mine simulators in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois and Colorado, according to Mr. Broadbent.
“Some [companies] just do the bare minimum; they train to the rule,” Mr. Whoolery said. “We believe here that they train until they master.”
Harry Casteel, the state inspector for Emerald Mine near Waynesburg, trains at the center every three months. He said the biggest challenge is navigating in low visibility and “knowing your way into the mine and knowing your way out.”
“It’s good that they simulate what it’d be like,” he said. “Being in fresh air is one thing, but being in smoke is a different ballgame. It changes everything.”
Plus, he said, breathing can be somewhat restricted when using the oxygen device, called a self-contained self-rescuer, or SCSR, which protects against the deadly carbon monoxide that fills a mine during a fire.
While searching for Mr. Vandelay during their exercise, the inspectors each carried a car-battery sized canister that chemically converts the carbon dioxide that humans exhale into oxygen that they can inhale. Attached are bags that inflate with three to six breaths and tubes that latch into the mouth.
Pennsylvania coal mines have not reported a fatality since June 2009, when a miner died by falling rock in Consol Energy Inc.'s Bailey Mine.
Mr. Stanchek, the emergency training manager, acknowledged the grim truth behind an industry adage that “all mining laws have been written in blood.” But he said he thinks the sets of eyes watching operations in coal mines today are more trained than ever to spot the slightest mistake.
“For a mine disaster to happen, a lot of things have to go wrong,” he said. “That’s why if everyone does their job, there shouldn’t be any.”
Daniel Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2743 and Twitter @danielmoore1213.