For three days in July 2002, the attention of the nation was focused on Somerset County, Pa., where rescue teams worked frantically to save nine coal miners trapped in a partially flooded chamber 240 feet underground. “NINE FOR NINE” was the triumphant news flash when the final miner was pulled to the surface through a rescue shaft from the Quecreek Mine.
Quecreek became the best-known instance of a danger that miners have faced for decades—the risk of inadvertently tunneling into an abandoned mine, filled with water or lethal gas, because the miners did not know it was there or because it was closer than was shown on an old mine map they were following.
Now, IUP is playing a leading role in preventing future Quecreek-like disasters. The university’s Institute for Mine Mapping, Archival Procedures, and Safety (IMAPS) is collecting old mine maps, digitizing them with a special high-resolution camera, and entering them in an on-line, searchable database that will be accessible to the public.
“After Quecreek, a lot of people started to say we got out of this lucky,” said John Benhart, the first IMAPS director and chairperson of IUP’s Department of Geography and Regional Planning.
A motorman pulls a string of loaded coal cars past the Ernest coke ovens.
The federal government made $4 million available to improve mining safety by collecting old mine maps, with $1 million going to the Bureau of Deep Mine Safety in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to administer the program in the commonwealth.
IUP was a logical partner to work with DEP on the map project. After CONSOL Energy Inc. purchased Indiana-based Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Company in 1998, the new owner donated to the university R&P artifacts, including miners’ helmets, drilling logs, photographs, and very old, very big mine maps.
“The thing we became interested in was the maps,” Benhart said. When he saw them, he knew they should not just be stored away in a library.
The R&P collection includes about three hundred mine maps, some 5 feet by 14 feet, containing detailed information.
“People weren’t dealing with maps this size previously,” said Phillip Zorich, IMAPS codirector and IUP’s interim dean of libraries.
It was obvious that special equipment would be needed to put the maps in a manageable and accessible format. So, the state purchased and placed in IUP’s Stapleton Library a German-made Cruse large-format, digital scanner.
John Benhart with the Cruse large-format, digital scanner.
It takes nine minutes for the 60-by-90-inch scanner table to slowly slide under the camera while it captures in high resolution all the details on the map. Each scan is 1.2 gigabytes of information.
The larger maps have to be scanned in multiple sections, then electronically “stitched” together in the database.
Some of the maps are color coded, with different colors representing succeeding years of mining at a particular mine. One map documents a mine’s active life from 1890 to 1912.
By August, IMAPS had scanned the R&P maps and roughly 1,200 other big mine maps.
But the project is far from finished.
“There are probably hundreds of thousands of maps out there,” said Joe Sbaffoni, who directed the Quecreek rescue and is now director of the Bureau of Deep Mine Safety for DEP.
“It’s going to be a continuing project.… And IUP has played a big role in it,” he said.
The maps, in an accessible database, will serve two important functions.
“First of all, it enables a company coming in to open up a new mine to do the permitting process, to lay out their mine so that it’s not going to cut into an old mine,” Sbaffoni said.“Number two, if by chance something would happen, if you have maps, that’s very important if you have to drill a rescue hole or identify water elevations.”
In eastern Pennsylvania, anthracite coal mines date back 150 years. David Williams, the mine inspector supervisor in the anthracite division of DEP’s Bureau of Deep Mine Safety, said old maps, when paired with annual reports filed by coal companies, can be a safety tool in a second way.
“We can look at the dates on the maps and cross-check them against the production reports and determine, ‘Are we looking at the most recent map or not?’” Williams said.
R&P Coal headquarters on Indiana's Church Street when it was new in the twenties
Lon Ferguson, another IMAPS codirector and chairperson of the university’s Safety Sciences Department, compares an on-line database of old mine maps to the Pennsylvania One Call System that alerts excavators to the presence of underground utilities before they dig.
Ferguson said emergency response and rescue protocols may be changed by IMAPS’ efforts because the quickly accessible database will help emergency responders plan rescue routes.
The mapping project has not been without challenges. Some coal mining companies formerly used their own mapping coordinate system.
“That was a big problem,” Benhart said.
The maps are being scanned into the IMAPS database using standard, recognized coordinates, not the varying systems used by some coal companies years ago.
Students from IUP’s Geography and Regional Planning Department are assessing the accuracy of some of the information on the old maps as they pinpoint remaining surface features, such as mine openings and the corners of old buildings, with GPS equipment. Students are also assisting with the scanning.
The students, Benhart said, are gaining practical experience working with important data that needs to be saved and made accessible.
Digitized maps will be used not only by mining engineers planning new mines, but also by mine subsidence insurance companies, people planning to build new homes or drill wells, and those wanting information on property boundaries.
“Why is a university relevant in a region? This is a pretty good example,” he said.
Under the agreement with the state, IUP may use the Cruse camera for digitizing things other than old mine maps.
Benhart said the goal is to roll out the mine map database in the next two to three years, and the maps of old Indiana County mines will probably be the first available for viewing.
“This issue resonates with a lot of people,” Benhart said, predicting that the digitized maps will be used not only by mining engineers planning new mines, but also by mine subsidence insurance companies, people planning to build new homes or drill wells, and those wanting information on property boundaries. And DEP’s Williams believes the old maps will be popular, for a more personal reason, with another group of people—those whose fathers and grandfathers toiled far underground in the mines.
“They can say, ‘I have this map. This is where Pap worked at, right here,’” he said.
Coal miners of the 1920s.
On August 17, Bob Wilson, formerly Venango County’s geographic information systems analyst, became the new director of IMAPS. Wilson earned an undergraduate degree at IUP in 1989 and a master’s degree in 1993. He was employed in IUP’s Geography Department for eleven years and is a former director of the university’s Spatial Sciences Research Center.
John Benhart, Lon Ferguson, and Phillip Zorich continue to serve as an advisory committee to IMAPS.
Randy Wells ’84 is a reporter at the Indiana Gazette.