Photo by Lance Booth.

In my new work as a foreman, I had shoveled belt, repaired structure, and wired new lines for sump pumps throughout the mine. I had proven that I could handle the responsibility of prioritizing the most important work to be done in the out-by areas of the mine. I had also prevented a few areas of the mine from flooding, not that anyone would have noticed if they had. I was one of only two or three miners to ever travel through the abandoned mine works to inspect the seals of the mine.

It had been more than two years since the seals had been built. It was back when I was on crew working for Aaron. Roger had asked me to work out-by with him and a few other miners.

Mine seals are walls built of fiber-block or solid concrete block. The walls seal off large abandoned areas of old mining works where the mining was complete. The seals cut off the supply of oxygen to the old works and prevent methane gas from spreading throughout the rest of the mine.

These seals are built to insure that there are no mine fires or explosions in these abandoned areas of the mine. They also allow the company to supply more fresh air to the active areas of the mine because after seals are built, ventilation no longer is diverted to those abandoned works.

Building a mine seal is not an art, it’s just hard work, requiring a strong back and at least one person to make sure the seals either meet regulation or are built fast enough so no inspector would know otherwise.

The seal must prevent any air from traveling through the cross cut. To get a good seal, we used pneumatic jackhammers to dig trenches across the mine floor and wall. Then we stacked the 8-inch solid concrete block to form a brattice. We built a chimney in the center to support any additional weight as the mine roof settled over the seal.

Working in the abandoned mine meant that what little bit of airflow existed was not enough to truly ventilate the area. It was hot and miserable. We all wound up shirtless and covered in rock dust that combined with our sweat to look like a dark gray coal slurry running along our bodies.

Mine seals need to be fireproof, too. If a spark ignited methane, the seals were the only line of defense to prevent the explosion from spreading into the active workings of the mine. Wood was not allowed, except pieces coated with a fireproof material that we wedged between the blocks at the roof and floor to ensure that the seal would stand. We were not allowed to use any paper or other flammable materials. We were building these seals just after the 2006 Darby Mine explosion in Harlan County, Kentucky, which killed five miners. We were cautious and made sure any straps were cut out prior to the construction of the seal and that we built each seal between two rows of roof bolts. We didn’t want to chance having to come back to cut out any metal from the seal after a good supply of methane had built up behind them.

You can blame who you want to for mining accidents, but most all of them come down to a miner working unsafely. He may have felt pressured to get the job done quickly or he may have wanted to take a shortcut to get out of there to go to his kid’s tee-ball game that afternoon. I’m not blaming the miner or the company; I’ve been on both ends of this many times. I have put myself in dangerous situations only to be found out by the foreman, who then threatened me with suspension and loss of pay. Other times I felt that I needed to do something dangerous in order to prove myself as a good, hard-working miner. Underground mining is a complicated career choice, and I don’t think it’s possible to understand exactly how complicated until you’ve been there for more than five years.

So we did exactly what we needed to do in order to get these seals built fast and to avoid working overtime. When Roger would go order more supplies or to call-out a pre-shift examination, we would stuff old block bond bags, trash from our lunch, and any other debris we could find into the cracks along the walls of the seal then quickly apply thick layers of block bond to hide the junk we had used to seal off any movement of air. We thought we were indestructible. These seals would never catch fire while we were working underground. We thought, “Hell, this block bond is supposed to treat the cap wedges and prevent them from burning, it’ll fireproof these paper bags too. I’m not working over time busting up concrete block to fill in all of these small holes and cracks, f*** that. I’m going home and drinking a few cold ones today.”

We were only mostly right about this.

Now that I had become a foreman, I was the one responsible for inspecting the seals – including the ones I had built myself a couple years earlier. Today, I could see that the paper we’d used in the seal I was inspecting had deteriorated and begun to fall out of the cracks. There didn’t seem to be any air seeping through the seal, but this did not look good and would surely get the mine shut down if caught by a state or federal inspector. As I tested the vent tube for the air quality behind the seals, everything was just as it should be — low levels of oxygen and almost no methane. I was relieved but also surprised, because as the natural gas extraction increased in the region, the gas industry had begun to release pockets of methane into the strata of the mines, raising the methane levels in some areas to dangerous levels.

I was now a mine foreman, and I was looking back on my decisions as a young miner. At the time, my actions seemed harmless. When we built the seal, I only wanted to make my job easier and go home at a reasonable hour. I had no ill intent toward the company or my co-workers. But now, a few years later, things looked different. I realized the shortcut had risked the lives of every miner who worked there. The revelation stuck with me. From that point forward, it forced me to evaluate every decision in a different light.

Gary Bentley, a native of Eastern Kentucky, mined coal underground for 12 years. He currently lives in Lexington, Kentucky.

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