Skip to content
Keynote Address
2002 Annual Conference
National Association of Abandoned Mine Land Programs
Park City, Utah
Sept. 16, 2002


Good morning, everyone.

What a pleasure it is to be here today. As many of you know, this is all familiar territory for me.

I grew up and lived in Carbon County for many years, and after spending the last year and several months "inside the beltway," it's good to be home.

Don't get me wrong. Washington is an interesting, dynamic, exciting town.

But it's no match for this part of the country.

Nothing compares with our Red Rocks (which I understand some of you had the occasion to visit this past weekend), our national forests, the dinosaur quarries, and ghost and mining towns.

My roots are here, and my loyalties are here. The coal fields of Utah and Colorado have sustained three generations of my family.

My father and my grandfather before me were coal miners, and I have been proud to continue that tradition.

When I accepted President Bush's appointment to head up the Mine Safety and Health Administration in May 2001, well, that was the culmination of 30 years of working in the coal industry.

I hope I've done my family, and my fellow Utahns, proud. And I hope to effectively continue to carry out the mission of the federal agency I represent - for however long I am honored to hold this position.

It's not been without its challenges and surprises.

Certainly one incident in particular that occurred in late July has consumed a great deal of MSHA's resources and energy.

I think you know which event I'm referring to, and I promise to address it shortly.

But first I'd like to extend my thanks to the National Association of Abandoned Mine Lands Program for holding this conference, and for inviting me to speak to you today.

I understand all too well the necessity of returning abandoned mine land back to its original state.

And I believe that the mining industry realizes the importance - and the benefits - of being a good corporate neighbor.

The potential environmental hazards that must be mitigated are numerous - And in many cases, these after-effects of mining poses a threat to the public if they are not immediately addressed and corrected.

Time and again, state, federal and private reclamation projects have demonstrated that the land can be renewed and returned to its citizens in innovative ways.

The benefits gained from reclamation of abandoned mine lands include the protection of life, health and safety.

The environmental and social conditions improve.

And there's a better use of natural resources.

Within MSHA, we are particularly concerned about the public safety ramifications that exist once a mining operation shuts down.

And we've devoted a lot of time and energy over the past few years to combat the safety problems associated with old mines.

As we all know, recreationalists love abandoned mines.

And it's not easy to squelch their spirit. They seem to have an unquenchable thirst for adventure.

All too often, however, such adventures may lead these people down the wrong path.

Especially here in the West. Thousands of unmarked abandoned mines plague our countryside.

Seldom are they easy to spot.

Their openings may be hidden by vegetation growing wild. Rotting timbers provide inadequate protection from gaping openings.

Fences and "no trespassing" signs do little to deter some people.

Suburban sprawl and new housing developments that creep onto once-remote lands have increased the chances that people will accidentally encounter old mines.

Just last June, the body of a hiker was found in an abandoned mine shaft in the mountains southwest of Wickenburg, Arizona.

Apparently, the young man and four friends had been four-wheeling in a rugged area and then got off their ATV's to do some hiking.

Somehow, he got separated from the group, and it took rescuers a day to find his body.

You may have heard about this next incident - it also happened last June and received national media attention.

Two brothers, along with one friend, were hiking along a trail in the Cleveland National Forest when they spotted an old, flooded mine.

Thinking it had treasure, they decided to try to swim through it.

The brothers never made it - it's believed they died in the murky, gas-clogged water from lack of oxygen.

This happened about 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

I'm no stranger to these kinds of accidents.

I've had personal experience with two such incidents right here in Utah.

One had a happy ending. The other did not.

It was 1989, 10-year-old Joshua Dennis was on a hiking excursion through the Oquirrh Mountains with his Boy Scout troup.

He got lost in one of the old silver, lead and zinc mines in the area that he and fellow scout troup members were exploring.

For five days we searched for him. Amazingly, two of my colleagues found him about 2,000 feet underground.

He suffered only from mild frostbite and dehydration.

Jeremiah Etherington was not so fortunate. He was an 18-year-old spelunker who fell to his death in a Tooele County mine shaft in 1996.

It was a family member who finally recovered his body, even though we knew this individual was putting his own life in serious jeopardy.

And let's not forget the risk to the rescuers.

I lobbied for several years to get changes to the law, and was finally successful - offenses against trespassers were strengthened, and restitution was made for rescue efforts.

It's tragedies like these -- and there are dozens that occur each year -- that prompted MSHA to launch the "Stay Out-Stay Alive" public awareness campaign.

Many of you probably are already familiar with SOSA, and may even be active partners in this outreach effort.

To those who are currently active partners, I thank you.

For those of you who aren't, please listen up.

I hope by the end of my talk I will have convinced you to become part of the partnership.

In 1999, MSHA began a concerted effort to track and catalogue the deaths that occur each year on mine property among children and adult hikers, bikers, swimmers, rock hounds and other types of recreationalists.

The numbers are astounding. In fact, over the past 4 years, more than 100 fatalities have been the result of recreational activity on mine property.

These numbers are hard to ignore.

Thankfully, dozens of other organizations heeded MSHA's call.

Today, we've got quite a network of state and federal agencies, as well as private organizations, that have rallied together to educate and enlighten the public about the dangers of playing on mine property.

For our own part, MSHA designates two weeks every April to saturate schools around the country with materials about the hazards kids might encounter.

I visited several schools myself this year, including one in Macon, Georgia. I also met with a group of middle school kids who took part in a tour of the Edgar Exhibition Mine in Colorado.

Our compliance specialists, educational field specialists and other mine safety and health personnel have really embraced this program, and their enthusiasm has paid off.

We're getting lots of positive feedback from teachers thanking us for taking the time to address these issues with their students.

More and more, they are being invited back to talk to additional groups of students in the same school.

But, as I said before, we're not alone in our efforts.

Currently, there are about 80 organizations that participate in the "Stay Out-Stay Alive" campaign.

And the number is steadily growing.

I am especially excited about a cooperative agreement MSHA signed this year with one of our campaign partners, the National Energy Foundation.

The NEF, a nonprofit organization, is known for its innovative educational materials about our natural resources, the environment, energy and technology.

They are in the midst of developing a poster and primer that addresses the hazards of playing on mine property.

A number of SOSA partners have signed on to this project as well.

When the poster and accompanying materials are completed, they will be distributed to thousands of science teachers around the country.

This will be an excellent way for us to get our message into schools nationally, and I thank the NEF for helping to make this possible.

The educational system can be one of our strongest allies in this campaign, and I encourage all of you to strengthen your organization's relationship with your local schools, because the numbers of recreational deaths is not showing signs of subsiding.

Quarries pose a particular hazard - since July, we've documented 13 drownings in quarries around the country.

To put special emphasis on this problem, we developed two public service announcements this summer that have been made available to interested TV and radio stations nationwide.

I'd like to take a moment now to show you the 30-second and 60-second clips.

   [ video shown ]

Anyone who would like a copy of this PSA, please call our office of information at (202) 693-9400.

This afternoon, one of the panel discussions will be dedicated primarily to this safety issue, and I hope many of you will participate.

It's a public safety problem that can occur in any community around the country, so we all are affected.

To those organizations that are active in community outreach, that are working hard to make old mine sites inaccessible to the public, thank you.

The dangers that abandoned mines pose aren't restricted to trespassers or the unsuspecting public.

That became quite clear in late July, when workers at an underground mine in Western Pennsylvania inadvertently cut into an adjacent abandoned mine site.

That breach caused massive flooding underground and nine miners' lived hung in the balance for three long days.

The successful rescue of nine coal miners working in the Quecreek Mine in Somerset County may have been one of the greatest mine rescue efforts in the history of mining.

It certainly was one of the most satisfying moments in my career.

The ordeal of those nine men truly captured the attention of the entire world.

No doubt most of you here in this room were glued to your TV sets during some point of the 3-day (and night) odyssey.

I don't think I will ever get tired of talking about it. I am incredibly proud of the efforts put forth by so many people: The list goes on and on.

From start to finish, dozens of mine safety professionals worked collectively to determine how to rescue the nine men quickly and safely.

From the beginning, MSHA's mobile command center served as a central point for federal, state and company personnel to meet, review information, and to make critical decisions.

MSHA's seismic monitoring system was set up to check for signs of life underground.

The first bore hole we drilled, a mere 6-inch hole, proved to be life-saving.

It provided precious oxygen to the miners.

It provided some warmth in the cold, damp environment.

The compressed air even exerted pressure against the rising water.

Meanwhile, a 30-inch drill began slowly and methodically boring through the rock in an effort to reach the trapped miners 240 feet below.

At the same time, pumps had been installed to remove the millions of gallons of water that had flooded the mine.

These pumps, along with drilling, hoisting and other equipment, arrived on the scene from companies in neighboring states.

The outpouring of help and offers by companies and individuals around the country was absolutely inspiring.

Another critical decision was determining how much water had to be removed before it would be safe to penetrate the mine workings with the drill.

The big question - what would happen if the rescue "bubble" protecting the miners was pierced?

If air pressure was all that was holding back the water, as soon as the rescue shaft went through, would air rush out and cause water to fill the protected space?

Drowning was a very real possibility.

MSHA's engineering staff calculated how much water needed to be pumped out before we could safely pierce through the rock, and how much pressure had to be exerted against the water in order to hold it back from the miners.

There were a couple of setbacks along the way. At one point, the 30-inch drill bit broke, and we were forced to go to a smaller one.

Meanwhile, a second bore hole was being drilled as a backup at an adjacent site.

Eventually the moment we had all waited for, and prayed for, arrived.

At 10:16 p.m., Saturday evening, more than three days after this drama began, the drill broke through.

At 10:53, we sent a microphone down the 6-inch hole to establish communications with the miners.

And at 11:10 p.m., a time that will be forever embedded in my memory, we got word that all nine miners were alive and okay.

What a moment that was.

I can honestly say that, while our optimism about the process may have wavered somewhat during those 77 hours, not once - never once - did we give up hope that these men were alive.

I believe it is that hope that sustained us throughout those three days, that allowed us to keep pushing forward, to never lose focus, to do whatever it took to return those men to their families.

And as our now-famous capsule was lowered and raised 18 times over the next 2 and a half hours, the mood escalated from relief to jubilation to downright euphoria.

We will learn some valuable lessons from the mishap that occurred in the old Saxman Mine.

It certainly points to the necessity of assuring the accuracy of old mine maps.

Immediately after the inundation occurred, I ordered MSHA to conduct a risk assessment of mines throughout the country to determine their potential for similar breakthroughs.

Our district offices are working with individual mine operators to ensure that necessary steps are taken to protect against these incidents.

We are also developing an agenda for a major technical symposium on setting a better understanding of the extent of old mine workings, which will lead to the prevention of inundations. We plan to announce the agenda and date for the conference soon.

These are no small tasks.

As you well know, there are thousands of abandoned mines across this country, and the locations of many of them are not precisely known.

But MSHA will do whatever is necessary to make sure that what happened at Quecreek doesn't happen at any other mine site.

For all of us here today, whether our focus is protecting our nation's mine workers, protecting the environment or protecting the citizens who come to rely upon our open lands for resources and recreation - our ultimate goal is the same.

I hope the next three days will be productive, informative and enlightening for all of you.

Thank you for your attention, and now, if there are any questions, I'd be happy to take them at this time.

###