Right now, there are two men with a tough job. They're at the back of a drill truck, pushing a growing length of steel to reach a group of miners trapped 1'500 below ground and four miles from the mine entrance. I spent a couple of years running a similar drill, aiming at collapsed mines (to spot areas likely to subside on the surface, not to located men stuck under hundreds of feet of rock, thank God), so I know the careful balance they're making. The drill bit is a structure composed of a hollow metal core surrounded by a number of industrial diamond tips, probably set into three revolving cones. Through the center of the bit, water circulates, flushing away the scraps of pulverized stone and the bit grinds ever deeper into the earth. Every ten or twenty feet, the drill has to be stopped for a moment as the drill stem is screwed apart using pipe wrenches (or other devices designed to bite into smooth steel) and another length of steel added. Then the stem is put together again, the drill starts to turn, and the bit chews relentlessly on.
Hitting the mine from the surface can be quite a challenge. First off, just being sure you're above the right place isn't all that easy. Even skillful surveying has some degree of error, and a mine map as large as the one in question is likely to be off by a matter of several feet miles away from the last sure surface reference point. So these guys will be aiming at the middle of a "main" about 20' across and hoping for the best. Add to that the fact that steel is remarkably flexible. A 2 1/2" length of steel 1,500' long can twist to the side if too much pressure is applied, or deflect from a hard stratum and start to drive into the ground at an angle. Detecting that this has happened from the surface is next to impossible without stopping the drill and running an instrument down the hole. So the drill operator has one eye on the hydraulic pressure gauge, making sure that the drill is turning and cutting smoothly, another on the down pressure, gauging how much weight is being put on the stack and how quickly it's cutting into the rock. He'll be fighting the desire to really push, to put the full weight of the truck onto the steel and drive that bit down, down, down because he knows that's an almost sure way to miss the target. The driller's assistant will be kneeling to check the water as it flows out around the steel, matching the flecks of rocks coming out against the layers of strata expected, and getting ready the next piece of steel.
As they close in on the mine, the job will get even tougher. Fractures in the rock near the mine will drain away the water that clears the broken rock away from the bit. If too much circulation is lost, the chips of stone will bind around the drill steel, locking it in place. I lost several hundred feet of steel -- and a job -- in just that way.
Meanwhile, there's another man who's taking on a very different role. If all you saw of mine owner Robert Murray was the thirty second clips that make the evening news, you might have the impression of a man with no concern but recovering his workers. The news is giving a far from complete picture of Murray or his company.
For the last two decades, he's been a rising star in the coal industry, a man who took a single mine in the Midwest, doubled its size, then went on to acquire properties across the country and eclipse some of the older companies in the industry. Murray also talks a lot about safety, enough that associations of mine owners point to him as an example. However, Murray Energy has done grown by consistently being a "low cost operator." An operator that has had plenty of problems following the rules.
The chairman of the company that co-owns the Utah coal mine where six workers are trapped has campaigned to improve mine safety - but his companies have incurred millions of dollars in fines over the last 18 months.
Murray also has a habit of going into indignant rants, accusing regulators of being out to get him, savaging journalists, swearing that safety experts are secretly trying to unionize his mines, and denying that he engaged in "retreat mining."
On that last issue, Murray's faux outrage is as contrived as Alberto Gonzales' misdirection over wire traps. What the press calls retreat mining is known in the industry as "pulling pillars." When underground mining with continuous miners (in this case, a "miner" is a machine) 50% or more of the coal is often left in the ground. The resulting mine looks like a map of city blocks with rectangular "pillars" of coal helping to hold up the roof (along with roof bolting in the area where the coal has been removed). When mining is complete in an area, operators often attempt to up their recovery percentage by cutting into these pillars as they "retreat" from the working face. This will compromise roof stability, but usually only over the long term, and coal recovered can shoot from 50% to as much as 80%.
Indications are that the area of mine that collapsed was at least slated for pulling pillars, so the idea that there was no "retreat mining" going on may be as imaginary as the series of "quakes" that Murray now blames for the mine's collapse.
We can only hope that the area where the men are trapped still has plenty of intact pillars to hold up the roof, or that drill bit may find nothing but rubble where open air should be.