100 Years in Mining History and Service
Dedication of the Experimental Mine in 1910. Since then its name has changed.
For more than 100 years the CDC/NIOSH Bruceton Experimental and Safety Research Coal Mine has been the site of test explosions, simulated rescue exercises, and research in health and safety interventions for mine workers.
“This mine has a lot of history,” said Paul Stefko, the mine’s foreman and a former miner himself. "This whole complex was actually established in 1910 and since its design it was meant as an experimental lab. It was developed this way because during the turn of the century - late 1800s, early 1900s- we had a lot of fatalities due mostly to underground coal mine explosions.”
Located in Bruceton, PA, the Safety Research Coal Mine and the Experimental Mine are separated by two explosion-proof bulkheads (that look like submarine doors), thus allowing multiple evaluations to be conducted concurrently. The objective is to operate and maintain specialized full-scale underground test facilities and ancillary surface equipment in support of ongoing mining to be used by the Laboratory, other agencies, and industry for testing. The whole complex is approximately four miles.
When Stefko talks about the mine complex, you can tell how much he cares for it, how much he knows about the industry.
"I became the mine foreman in 1986 and since then I’ve been responsible for the operation of the Bruceton mines."
Paul Stefko points to special mesh and iron bolts that secure part of the roof of the Bruceton Experimental and Safety Research Coal Mine. Photo by María-Belén Moran
In 1910, the newly created US Bureau of Mines leased a 38-acre tract of land from the Pittsburgh Coal Co. in Bruceton, about 13 miles south of Pittsburgh. One of the early tests in the Experimental Mine (as it was known then) demonstrated that coal dust by itself was capable of propagating an explosion even in the absence of any methane gas. This demonstration was contrary to the belief held at the time that coal dust could not explode without gas.
The Experimental Coal Mine consists of two drift entries driven into the Pittsburgh coal seam developed to support full-scale mine explosion tests. The Safety Research Coal Mine (SRCM) is a room-and-pillar operation approximately the size of a working section of a coal mine and is utilized for mine health and safety research in areas such as ground control, ventilation, fires, explosives use, materials handling, and environmental monitoring.
"The Experimental Mine and Safety Research Coal Mine are such unique research facilities that we are fortunate to have an experienced and dedicated staff with the knowledge of how to best utilize these resources for the maximum benefit to the agency," said Operations Officer Barbara Heirendt.
Continuous Maintenance Accommodates Endless Use
For more than 100 years the complex has provided support to the development of different projects. To continue to accommodate researchers, it has to be constantly maintained. Last year 42 research-related projects and 12 mine rescue training and fire brigades training exercises took place in the complex. "Fog machines create 'smoke' for the exercises so it looks and feels as real as possible," said Stefko.
The SRCM is currently the only federally owned or leased mine available for testing and conducting exercises.
Students from the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities visit the CDC/NIOSH Research and Safety Coal Mine in Bruceton, PA. Photo Courtesy of Constance Franklin
The foreman and his team of two maintain the mine so that on-site researchers, partner agencies, universities and even other countries can test products and equipment. Firefighter rescue teams and other response officers also use the mine to simulate rescue operations.
"It is a constant battle to keep it clean," said Stefko.
"The testing exercises, as well as the weather, can wear and tear the mine. Every morning the first thing I do when I arrive is go inside and examine the mine to make sure it is safe to enter, and then document that examination. My main mission here is to maintain the mines and support the researchers that use our facilities.” Visitors to the Safety Research Coal Mine walk through the travel ways as they tour the underground workings," explained Stefko. "When the American with Disabilities Act came into being, I had our SRCM personnel fabricate a mine supply cart that could carry a wheelchair. I had ramps built to load the wheelchair at the mine entrance, as well as ramps to unload the wheelchair underground at the artifacts room."
"SRCM personnel would physically push the mine cart into the mine and the person with the disability would arrive underground at the artifacts room and tour that area at their leisure, looking at all the artifacts and having the experience of being exposed to the underground environment. That is an accomplishment that I am extremely proud of."
Stefko continued, "the first visitor to try the modified cart was a 13-year-old boy. He was the nephew of one of the SRCM miners at the time and came from a long history of mining. His father and the men in his family worked all their lives in a coal mine and this young man had an automobile accident that paralyzed him from the neck down. His father, his uncles, the miners and I took him underground. It was such a nice experience for the dad and the uncles because they all work together in the mines. And his son was able to experience firsthand being exposed to the underground environment in a mine. It was worth the effort," remembered Stefko.
To learn more about occupational safety and mining, see http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/mining/
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