NRC Ordered Modifications Continue to Be Made In Response to Fukushima Disaster

On Sunday, March 22, the Post-Gazette reported FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company (“FENOC”) is continuing to implement modifications to the Beaver Valley Power Station. The modifications resulted from additional regulations promulgated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (“NRC”) in response to the 2011 nuclear event in Fukushima. This blog outlines the regulations that have specifically stemmed from the Fukushima event.

beaver valley

Fukushima Background

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake occurred off of the coast of Japan in close proximity to eleven nuclear reactors at four different sites. Fukushima Dai-ichi lost power from the grid for approximately 40 minutes, and in the interim, the site was hit by a 45-foot tsunami. The tsunami caused damages to the generators as well as back-up systems. Eventually four of the six reactors at Fukushima lost all power. Systems for three of the six reactors failed, overheating occurred, and the cores were somewhat melted. As a result, high pressure formed that caused the release of radioactive gas and hydrogen. The hydrogen exploded, causing additional release of radioactive material.


Almost precisely a year after the event, the NRC revealed measures in response to Fukushima.

Regulations Stemming from Fukushima

In March 2012, the NRC outlined nine—Tier 1— areas of concern, three of which ordered licensees of U.S. nuclear plants to comply with by 2016: (1) mitigation strategies; (2) containment venting systems; and (3) spent fuel pool instrumentation. Other Tier 1 items—involving a request for information from the licensees without ordering immediate action—include seismic reevaluations, flooding hazard reevaluations, seismic and flooding walk downs, and emergency preparedness. The NRC also revealed Tier 2 and Tier 3 measures which are less pressing to complete.

The modifications being made at Beaver Valley are primarily aimed at handling and responding to disaster. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article explains, the Fukushima disaster taught the nuclear industry that plants may experience unprecedented natural disasters, and a Japanese investigation discovered the Fukushima disaster was a result of “man-made” deficiencies. As a result, the NRC orders aim at preparing the nuclear plants to be able to respond to any disaster regardless of what caused it. The majority of the modifications being made at FENOC’s Beaver Valley Plants fall under the mitigation strategies and spent fuel pool instrumentation. The Fukushima reactors are boiling water reactors; whereas, the Beaver Valley reactors are pressurized water reactors. The containment venting system order does not require any modifications at Beaver Valley because the order applies only to boiling water reactors.

Economic Impact on Utilities

The safety measures previously discussed are predictably going to come at a significant cost to the nuclear industry. As of July 2014, the nuclear industry had spent approximately $3 billion dollars in response to the Fukushima disaster. Pete Sena, president and chief nuclear officer of FENOC, expressed FENOC had spent $125 million on modifications to its four nuclear reactors between March 2011 and July 2014. Extrapolating that cost per reactor across the all of the nuclear reactors in the United States, the cost to the nuclear industry was anticipated to be in the realm of $3 billion. However, more recently the Nuclear Energy Institute has estimated the cost to the industry would be closer to $4 billion.


While coming at a cost to the nuclear industry, substantial safety improvements will be implemented by 2016 in response to the Fukushima disaster.


Daniel Moore, At Beaver Valley, Upgrades are Underway in Response to Fukushima Disaster, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mar. 22, 2015, available at


Japan Lessons Learned, (last visited Mar. 25, 2015).


US Nuclear Industry Spends Billions on Post-Fukushima Upgrades,, (last visited Mar. 25, 2015)




The Benefits of Standardizing Nuclear Power Plant Designs

Nuclear power provides affordable, reliable, low-carbon electricity, and can make crucial contributions to the goals of energy independence and global environmental commitments. However, at present, the multiplicity of customized reactor designs and licensing requirements have increased cost and uncertainty. This is far from being a conducive environment to nuclear investment, which depends on the manageability of commercial risk. Nuclear power plant standardization would result in transparent and predictable licensing processes and oversight, and would contribute significantly to a stable investment framework for a more efficient, safe, and orderly expansion of nuclear power in the U.S.

Enhanced Safety, Reduced Costs, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Construction and operation of standardized plants is a unique opportunity to derive safety benefits from a fleet of plants based on the same designs. Through such standardization, positive effects in nuclear safety are attainable. The deployment of standardized reactors offers a much broader basis of experience feedback in design and construction compared to the existing system with its many different designs – leading to a higher probability of identifying areas for design improvements. Broader experience feedback would also benefit long-term operation by applying common guidelines and procedures, enhancing the ability to detect any deviations or possible improvements, and improving anticipation of safety issues. These design improvements could then be planned and implemented consistently across the fleet. This approach would keep the standardized plants at the most advanced level of design safety, in accordance with newly gained experience or progress in technology.

Some may perceive a risk that in standardization, a belatedly detected design flaw would affect the whole fleet of a particular design. However, standardization provides a much higher probability of early detection because of the rapid accumulation of experience, knowledge exchange between operators of this design, and preventive provisions incorporated at an early stage. Thus, if well managed by industry stakeholders, standardized designs would bring effective additional safety layers for design, construction, operation, and decommissioning.

Standardized nuclear power plant designs would also reduce costs in nuclear construction and operations. At present, the financial industry sees the construction of new reactors as a risky investment and demands a premium on capital lent for the purpose. Therefore, the time it takes to build and get a new plant operational becomes critical. Standardized designs would quicken the construction schedule and reduce overall financing costs. After construction is finished, standardization enables both vendors and operators to implement best practices and experience feedback throughout the full plant lifecycles of a similarly designed nationwide nuclear fleet – helping with the identification and resolution of safety issues and allowing operators of different plants to learn more from the experiences of one another to facilitate audits. Moreover, it would improve training and reduce plant personnel costs as hardware, software, and construction is standardized for new plants throughout the U.S.

Even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is in favor of some form of standardization. The current U.S. nuclear power industry environment lacks economies of volume because practically every reactor design is different. Each builder put in their own tweaks and much of the equipment was custom built for each plant. This compounded the difficulties of obtaining NRC licensing approval since the NRC had to evaluate each individual design. The NRC is trying to counteract this by pre-approving power plant designs and expediting the construction and operating licensing process for those that use one of their pre-approved design. With standardization, the NRC benefits through the reduction in the number of different reactors it would have to understand and regulate, thereby relieving the strain on their agency resources. Inspections would be cheaper and quicker to accomplish, and new power plants could become operational faster.

Standardization of power plant designs will be crucial if nuclear power is to be a major contributor to the U.S.’s present and future clean-energy needs. Developing standardized designs for new power plants would result in a set of criteria for operators, designers, and regulators that lend consistency to their actions. Future construction could be limited to these designs and licensing could be fast-tracked, creating a considerable inducement to the whole process.

Three Mile Island Accident and the Regulatory Response

Three Mile Island (Near) Disaster

Three Mile Island (TMI) is a nuclear power plant located near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The plant is infamous for its partial meltdown, which is the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history.


The incident occurred on Wednesday, March 28, 1979, when a mechanical or electrical failure in the secondary, non-nuclear section of the plant prevented the main feedwater pumps from sending water to the steam generators that remove heat from the reactor core. The result was the automatic shutdown of the turbine-generator and then the reactor, which caused an immediate spike in pressure in the nuclear portion of the plant. The spike in pressure caused the relief valve at the top of the pressurizer to open. The valve is to automatically close when the pressure returns to normal, but the valve got stuck and remained open. The plant staff was unaware that the valve remained open, however, as instruments in the control room indicated that it was shut. This resulted in cooling water pouring out of the valve without the staff’s knowledge.

Alarms began to ring, but the staff had no idea that the plant was experiencing a loss-of-coolant accident. This lack of knowledge led to the staff taking actions that made the problem worse. Thinking that the pressurizer was filling up completely, the staff reduced how much cooling water was being pumped into the primary system, which starved the reactor core of coolant and causing it to overheat. The nuclear fuel overheated so much that the long metal tubes, which hold fuel pellets, and the fuel pellets themselves began to melt. Luckily, TMI’s containment building remained intact and held almost all of the accident’s radioactive material.

Later that evening, it appeared that the core had adequately cooled, but by Friday, March 30th, new concerns arose after a significant amount of radiation was released. The chemical reactions created a large hydrogen bubble in the dome of the pressure vessel, which led officials to worry that the bubble might burn or explode and rupture the pressure vessel, causing a serious and potentially lethal breach of containment. However, officials eventually discovered that the bubble was no longer a threat to explode due to the lack of oxygen in the pressure vessel.


Luckily, the health effects of the TMI accident were minimal. Approximately 2 million people around TMI received an average radiation dose of about 1 millirem. Exposure from a chest X-ray is about 6 millirem. Studies by universities including Columbia and Pitt have confirmed the government’s conclusion that the actual release of radioactive material had negligible effects on the environment and the health of individuals.

Tightening of Regulations

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) introduced broader and more robust regulations and oversight across the country. These changes include: upgrading and strengthening of plant design and equipment requirements, revamping operator training and staffing requirements, improved instrumentality and controls for operating plants, enhancing emergency preparedness, and the implementation of drills and response plans several times a year.

For more reading, visit:

The Solar Eclipse to Strain Europe’s Electricity Supply

The ensuing solar eclipse has the potential to cause rolling blackouts around Europe. The not-so-evident reason: Solar energy in Europe has risen drastically. The last eclipse that would be comparable to this occurred in 1999, where much of the power was generated using nuclear power and fossil fuels. Now, many countries in Europe have made huge efforts to switch to renewable energy sources, including solar. In 1999, the impact was not significant to the power gird. The switch, however, may have repercussions. The power supply, now including more renewables, experts say, may not be ready or strong enough to handle the eclipse. See Andrew Griffin, The question is, however, will the brief blockage of the sun be enough to cause blackouts?

The eclipse is set to have a duration of only two minutes and forty-seven seconds. Could that amount of time really cause rolling blackouts over most of Europe? Well, in 1999, a mere .01 percent of renewable energy came from the sun. As the years progressed, now 10.5 percent of renewable energy is solar. Id. The European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity, which ensures that energy is distributed evenly, explained that the event could be devastating. Id. We have learned in Professor Baicker-McKee’s Energy Law class that renewable energies have a problem with even distribution, especially when the demand is high. Here, even the amount of sun decreasing slightly could have repercussions all over the European power grid. Id.

The Wall Street Journal, yesterday, put it correctly when they stated: “In ancient times, an eclipse was sometimes viewed as a sign of a coming doomsday.” See Liam Maloney, While doomsday may not come on Friday, Europe does need to carefully plan for the worst: rolling blackouts over the entire continent. The countries collectively have made a big bet on renewable energies and this eclipse will provide a test. The European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity must carefully balance the supply across the entire grid when near 80% of the sun will be blocked. Id.

Total solar eclipse from Cape Tribulation, Queensland

In Europe, and around the world for that matter, the sun takes about an hour for the light to fade into darkness. Effectively, this provides countries with time to substitute the power generated from the sun to power generated by fossil fuel energy sources. Id. Sources expect that over 35,000 megawatts of generation capacity will be lost in the few minutes that the sun is blocked. Id. Some people, however, see a silver lining to the “doomsday” scenarios. Professor Alessandro Abate of Oxford University’s Department of Computer Science sees this as a great opportunity to challenge and test a worst-case scenario and see how the large populations of solar panels across Europe respond. See Jonathan O’Callaghan,  We shall see how successful they are.

A Brief Overview of Interior Electric Wiring

When electricity was a new thing in the late 19th/early 20th century, the AC/DC war raged. This has nothing to do with rock bands but with Alternating Current and Direct Current. Thomas Edison favored DC because he invented it, thought of it as very safe, and it was what his other inventions were based off of. George Westinghouse decided that AC was better (however it was Tesla’s invention) because it was easier to transmit and therefore there were fewer power stations needed in order to send power over long distances. AC could be converted down easily from high power lines for residential use. It was convenience over comfort. The details of the “war” need not be recounted here but AC prevailed.

The Breaker Box/Fuse Box a.k.a. “Main Box”

Electricity gets into your home from a mainline that traditionally comes off of a pole. It’s attached to the meter that measures Kilowatt Hours of energy that you use. A Kilowatt Hour is equal to leaving a 100 watt light bulb on for one hour. That meter has wires that lead to your main box. Your main box is where all your interior wires for lights, receptacles, dryer, air conditioning, range, dishwasher, i.e. everything in your home that is powered by electricity come from.

If you have an older home you may have a fuse box like my apartment did before it was replaced. Fuses and breakers do essentially the same job. Fuses are just that — they have a fusible link that is precisely calibrated to disintegrate at a certain amperage, thereby opening the circuit and stopping the flow of electricity. The only problem with them is that they can only be used once before you have to go to the local home improvement store to buy more.


10 Amp Fuse. Note the 10 Amp rating and visible fusible link.


Old Fuse box

60 amp Fuse box. Note the pull out cartridge fuses on top with handles.

Most modern homes have a breaker box that looks like this:



How Stuff Works

Circuit breakers are just that, they open or “break” the circuit. The hot wire in the circuit connects to the two ends of the switch. When the switch is flipped to the on position, electricity can flow from the bottom terminal, through the electromagnet, up to the moving contact, across to the stationary contact and out to the upper terminal. The electricity magnetizes the electromagnet. Increasing current boosts the electromagnet’s magnetic force, and decreasing current lowers the magnetism. When the current jumps to unsafe levels, the electromagnet is strong enough to pull down a metal lever connected to the switch linkage. The entire linkage shifts, tilting the moving contact away from the stationary contact to break the circuit. The electricity shuts off. (Source: How Stuff Works)

Why is all this needed? When current travels through a wire, it heats the wire. The more current, the more heat. Eventually the heat will start a fire. And the fuses and circuit breakers are meant to prevent that.

The Brief History of Interior Electrical Wiring

When electricity was young the interior wiring was primitive. The first wiring that was widely used was called “knob and tube” wiring. This was a simple wire that went through ceilings and walls with ceramic insulators. This is very much the “mad scientist” looking wiring that is seen in old movies.

Knob and Tube Wiring in a Home

Knob and Tube Wiring in a Home

This could get confusing if there were a lot of circuits:

Knob and Tube Wiring in a Textile Factory

Knob and Tube Wiring in a Textile Factory

There were several iterations of wiring between what we use now and the old Knob and Tube. There was paper wiring which had your copper wires covered in a special paper. But the paper eventually cracked and exposed wires which could lead to a fire. Then there was cloth covered wire, which is what is in my apartment. When it gets old it sometimes gets brittle but my interior wires are in great shape. So cloth wire gets the thumbs up from me on that one. On the exterior light the cloth was very brittle and I needed a lot of electrical tape to keep it safe. That being said, the wires have been exposed to the elements for the better part of 20 years, so they have held up pretty well. Neither K&T, paper covered, or cloth covered wires had a dedicated ground.

Metal sheathed wiring came next which is also in my apartment and is responsible for grounding most of my receptacles. The metal covering of the wires carries the ground back to the box, making a safer circuit. It should be noted that this is still used in many industrial applications. The wiring that is widely used now is called Romex. Household Romex is designed to carry 15 amps and has three wires inside a larger wire and an example of Romex is below.

Romex Wire is Normally Orange or Yellow

Romex Wire is Normally Orange or Yellow.

As you can see, the wire has 3 wires inside of it. The white is neutral, the middle copper wire is the ground wire, and the black is hot. Simple, effective, and the PVC coating is durable. Most new homes from the late 1970’s forward have this wiring.

We have come a long way in 130 years. In my presentation I will cover the receptacles in your home along with what is safe and what may not be when using electricity.

Sources: (Fuse Pictures) (K&T Pictures) (Fuse Pictures) (Romex Picture) (Circuit Breaker info/pictures)

Myself (Picture of breaker box & panel)

15+ years of tinkering with electricity

Cybersecurity & the Electric Power Grid: Is the U.S. Doing Enough to Ensure an Email Virus Does Not Turn Off the Lights?

In February 2013, President Obama issued Executive Order 13636 “Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity” in an attempt to prevent enemies of the state from disrupting the United States’ critical infrastructure via cyber attacks. [1]. The Order pushed for a public-private partnership to evaluate and improve the cybersecurity systems of all public utilities throughout the United States. By February 2014, the Department of Energy (“DOE”) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (“NIST”) established a framework for utility providers to utilize in evaluating and improving their cybersecurity systems and practices. [2]. NIST developed the framework and the DOE is assisting utilities to properly use the framework.  There are two frameworks established, one for oil and natural gas grids and one for electric power grids.  [3].  The Electricity Subsector Cybersecurity Capability Maturity Model (“ES-C2M2″) specifically addresses electrical power grid cybersecurity concerns by providing a step-by-step process for electricity providers to evaluate and improve their security to enhance infrastructure cybersecurity.

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 1.14.52 AM

The NIST framework has three objectives: 1) establish cybersecurity risk management strategies, 2) manage the cyber security risks, and 3) outline activities necessary to manage the risk. Additionally, the NIST framework scores utilities to determine their vulnerability to attack. Once a company’s vulnerability is determined, steps are recommended under the framework to decrease vulnerability by enhancing security.

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 2.13.52 AM [2].

Both the administration and DOE encourage utilities and other energy companies to contact one another and the DOE in the event of an attack to mediate damage and put everyone on alert.  Nonetheless, private companies’ authority, responsibility, and liability to the public remain unclear in the event of attack. [3]. To further complicate things, it is unclear whether liability, if any, would increase in the event a utility failed to implement the NIST framework into its cybersecurity operations. So, what happens if an unprotected public utility is successfully attacked and subsequent mayhem results in damage to public and private property? At this point, the answer is unclear. It is also unclear whether the government will provide any financial assistance to implement the recommended cybersecurity programs.

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 1.20.27 AM [2].

Regardless, the administration’s efforts appear to be wisely proactive. Successful cyber attacks on other nations appear to be rumblings of a coming storm to the United States’ grid.

Saudi Arabia’s oil conglomerate Aramco had 30,000 workstations’ hard drives wiped by a cyber attack virus in August 2012. [5]. The workstations were down for 10 days. Luckily, the virus did not harm the company’s kinetic computers, those computers responsible for operating the physical machinery that extracts and transports oil.

The 2012 Aramco attack raised brows worldwide because it was accomplished by sending an email to unsuspecting employees containing a virus. A virus like the one used in 2012 can come in a multitude of malware forms including “phishing,” a “Trojan horse,” or “worm” mediums. We are all victims of malware in our daily email, but we are usually smart enough to avoid clicking on the link from our long-lost uncle in Nigeria who has our unclaimed $10 million dollar inheritance. Even if we mistakenly open a malware link, usually the damage is limited to our computer. The fallout could be much more serious at a utility.

What happens when a malicious email arrives to a utility employee’s desk with the company’s masthead and proper appearing email address? It is quite possible that a virus could be opened that spreads so quickly and devastatingly that the eastern seaboard would be in the dark for days or weeks.

Such attacks are not limited to viruses sent through email. The Chinese government is suspected of actively attacking the U.S. infrastructure. In early 2014, five Chinese officials were indicted in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania for attempting to hack U.S. Steel, Westinghouse, and other major corporations within the Pittsburgh region. [6].

Many industry observers call the events in Saudi Arabia and the recent cyber attacks on the U.S. from China a wake up call for U.S. public utilities. Of course it is a wake up call. But are we doing enough to protect the grid?

A loosely strung together public-private partnership may not be enough to ensure uniform grid protection throughout the country. The administration, the DOE, and likely Congress should further clarify issues of cost, authority, and liability moving forward under the NIST framework. The administration and DOE should mandate acceptable minimum levels of cybersecurity to be implemented within public utilites and further explain liability to public and private property – including fallout in the financial and communications markets – if they want the industry to uniformly protect us from widespread and possibly long-term blackouts.

Further work is required, and hopefully the government and the industry can work quickly enough together to be prepared when the cyber attack storm arrives.






[4] Roland L. Trope & Stephen J. Humes, Before Rolling Blackouts Begin: Briefing Boards on Cyber Attacks That Target and Degrade the Grid, 40 Wm. Mitchell L. Rev. 647, 663 (2014).




Clean Power Plan (a.k.a Obama’s War on Coal)

At the direction of President Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the Clean Power Plan Proposal in June 2014. The main goal of the proposal is to regulate carbon emissions from existing and future fossil fuel powered plants. Pursuant to the order, the EPA will release the final standards in June 2015. This order requires the EPA to work flexibly with states, energy agencies, labor unions, etc. to develop unique plans for each state. The EPA has set a “target goal” for each state- meaning the state must meet the target number in terms of carbon emissions. However, the methods that the states choose to meet the goal, is up to them. To develop their targets, the EPA first determined each state’s carbon-emissions baseline divided by its total electricity generation. Then using this number, the EPA established the target based on the capacity of each state to achieve reductions based on four “building blocks.” These building blocks are the states capacity to: 1. Make coal-fired power plants more efficient, 2. Use low-emitting natural gas combined cycle plants more where excess capacity is available, 3. Use more zero and low-emitting power sources such as renewables and nuclear, and 4. Reduce electricity demand by using electricity more efficiently.

For instance, the EPA has decided that Kentucky must reduce their carbon emissions by 18% by the year 2030. Using the “building blocks” the EPA provides illustrative ways that Kentucky may choose to meet that goal such as a 6% increase in efficiency of coal plants, 2.3% usage of low-emitting natural gas combined cycle plants more where excess capacity is available, 1.4% usage of more zero-emitting power sources such as renewables and nuclear, and 8.5% reduction in electricity demand by using electricity more efficiently. As mentioned, the state may adopt these illustrative methods, but is allowed to develop their own plan. Because the EPA expected “push-back” from some states, it has developed a “Model Plan” for any state that refuses to submit a carbon-emission reduction plan. Here is a map of the “target” goals for each state. It’s interactive, so you can click on a state and view their target numbers.

Target Number Map

The EPA proposes that carbon-emission reductions will significantly battle climate change, protect public health by eliminating 30% of all carbon emissions, increase energy efficiency, and reduce demand on the electricity system. So, why all the opposition? Two words: jobs + money. Opponents of this legislation have labeled it “Obama’s War on Coal,” and over a dozen states have filed suit against the EPA. Opponents claim that the cost of the changes to machinery combined with lessening the demand on coal will essentially cause the plants to close. The states with the highest coal production (and most opposition) are Wyoming, which produces 39.4% of the U.S. coal supply, West Virginia at 11.8%, Kentucky 8.2%, Illinois 5.3%, and Pennsylvania 5.2%. In Wyoming, there are 17 mines that employ 6,673 employees. In West Virginia, there are 326 mines that employ 20,751 employees. Kentucky has 370 mines with 12,905 employees. Illinois has 33 mines and 4,164 employees. Finally, Pennsylvania has 207 mines with 6,817 employees. Just from the top-five coal producing states, 953 mines and 51,310 jobs will be affected by this legislation assuming the opponents have a valid argument that the costs will force closure. Here are examples of signs that many residents of Somerset, PA have displayed in their yards in response to the Clean Power Plan.

Obama Coal


Recently, Obama has proposed a $4 billion dollar fund to reward states who are beating their climate goals. However, his proposal will likely be skeptically addressed by a Republican majority in Congress.


Mining Safety

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, coal mining continues to rank high among dangerous occupations despite legislative initiatives to make the industry safer. Fatal mining accidents, cave-ins, and explosions gain worldwide media attention. One mining accident that every western Pennsylvanian is familiar with is the “Nine for Nine” Rescue at Quecreek mine where nine miners were trapped underground for three days. Due to their safety training, common sense, and a dedicated team of highly organized mining professionals, all nine survived the nightmare. The accident was eye-opening for Pennsylvania mining officials and the rescue set an example for the industry of how to precisely handle this type of accident and execute a successful rescue operation.

Quecreek mine is a deep mine located in Friedens, Pennsylvania (my hometown.) On July 24, 2002, nine miners accidently dug into the Saxman mine unleashing 150 million gallons of stagnant water. One of the nine miners was able to successfully warn the other group of men working in another part of Quecreek. Nine miners safely evacuated the mine, while nine remained trapped by quickly rising water. The trapped miners were approximately 240 feet underground and a mile and a half from the mine’s entrance.

In just under a half hour after the breach of the Saxmon mine, Joe Sbaffoni, Pennsylvania’s deep-mining safety expert, and Dave Rebuck, the owner of Black Wolf Coal Co., gathered a team together to rescue the miners.

After looking over the maps of the mines, the team decided that if there were survivors, they had to be located at the highest point of the mine. Using GPS, they determined that they needed to drill on the Arnold Family Farm.


In less than eight hours, a six-inch air hole was dug into the ground to supply air to the miners. After running some calculations, the rescue team realized that the miners were probably about neck deep in water. Therefore, plans to dig ten subsequent holes to pump out the water became the next challenge. That is, however, until a mine ventilation specialist suggested an unprecedented plan: to create a pressurized air pocket similarly seen naturally in underground caves. If they could use air compressors to create an airlock, then they would be able to stop the water from rising.


Once the airlock was successfully established, the rescuers prepared to drill the escape tunnel. A 1,500-pound drill bit was rushed to Somerset County from Clarksburg, West Virginia. On Saturday, July 27 at 10:15PM, the drill finally broke through. Four hours later, all nine miners were safely brought to the surface.



The Quecreek mining accident led to an overhaul of mining safety laws in our state. Mining operations getting within 500 feet of another mine had to first show that mining was still safe before continuing. Permitting procedures, already a yearlong process, became stricter. Finally, a central mine map repository was created. In 2009 came major changes to the commonwealth’s Mining Safety Act. A Mining Safety Board comprised of representatives from the mining industry and the United Mine Workers was created. The Board meets on a quarterly basis to discuss policies, precautionary measures, and coal miner concerns. The Board is able to make changes without waiting for the House and Senate to pass legislation. The ability to make quick decisions about mining safety measures ensures that miners don’t have to wait for an accident or fatality to happen before changes are implemented.





Mine Subsidence in Pennsylvania

Coal mining began over 200 years ago in Pennsylvania. Today, there are more than 1 million homes that sit above abandoned mines. Because of this, Pennsylvania has one of the largest abandoned mine problems in the country.


According to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), mine subsidence is “defined as movement of the ground surface as a result of readjustments of the overburden due to collapse or failure of underground mine workings.” Mine subsidence usually presents itself on the surface in the form of either sinkholes or troughs. These impacts usually take many years to present themselves.


1 - Modes of Subsidence


Sinkholes are generally only associated with abandoned mine workings, particularly shallow room-and-pillar mines where there is less than 50 feet between the coal seam and the surface. Room-and-pillar mining involves cutting into the coal seam in square or rectangular blocks, which are the pillars. The pillars support the ground above the seam. The openings between the pillars are the rooms. Sinkhole subsidence typically occurs when the mine roof collapses into a room of the room-and-pillar mine causing the overlying ground to cave in. This caving in creates a depression in the ground surface. Deeper mines often fill in when they collapse, and the subsidence never makes it to the surface. Today, shallow mines are not generally allowed. Mines now have to be at least 100 feet below the ground surface and/or any structures. More shallow mines may be authorized by the DEP only if the coal company has a subsidence control plan that shows that the mine will be stable.


2 - Room and Pillar Mining


Troughs can occur over active or abandoned mines. What triggers a subsidence trough is very different from a sinkhole, even though the resulting impacts to the surface may be similar. Troughs usually occur when the mine pillars “punch” into the mine floor or roof which causes the above ground to sag downward.


3 - Trough Subsidence


The state is responsible for “shoring up mine subsidence” caused by abandoned coal mines. Under the authority of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA), the PA Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation is responsible for taking care of subsidence problems among other issues caused by mining. The SMCRA calls for a federal tax on coal mining, which is distributed among the states to help pay for abandoned mine reclamation. This tax is set to expire in seven years. Before the tax expires, Pennsylvania will receive between $750 million and $770 million of those tax dollars for mine reclamation. Statewide, though, it is estimated that it would cost $4.7 billion to fix all of the known problems with abandoned coal mines. This amount does not include emergency projects, such as when a subsidence causes a road to sink.


The state, however, is not responsible for damage caused to private property. Many people are not prepared for mine subsidence. Of the more than 1 million homeowners who are sitting on top of abandoned mines in Pennsylvania, only about 6 percent have subsidence insurance. Most of those who do have insurance are in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Mine Subsidence Insurance through the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is $57.50 per year for $100,000 worth of coverage up to $500,000. Standard homeowner’s insurance does not cover damage caused by subsidence.


4 - Subsidence Damage




Is Our Water Safe From Fracking?

Water pollution has been a hot topic when it comes to natural gas drilling. One fear that has permeated the fracking world is that the fracking process will contaminate our ground water. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has set up a minimum requirement for all Oil & Gas companies to protect and ease fears. In order to obtain a permit to drill anywhere in our state companies must give a detailed report to the Pennsylvania DEP that includes all information required to carry out environmental risk analysis. The well depth and location must be specified, as well as related geological information including the type and nature of surrounding rock formations, proximity to groundwater, and proximity to local water supplies. All surface water supply owners within 1,000 feet of the drill site must also be notified by certified mail. Finally, drillers must submit a deposit or bond to the state as security against violation of environmental regulations and restrictions.

After this report is submitted and land owners are notified Oil & Gas Companies usually contract out to a water testing lab to create a “base line” test. This means they collect water samples from any natural source within the regulated area and test it for any pollutants before they start doing anything, this even includes clearing timber and creating infrastructure for the pad. Then after drilling has started and they must consistently test the water and compare it to the base line test. Most Oil and Gas Companies go above and beyond the minimum set out by the state and test the water after each step in the production process (i.e. clearing timber, building the bad, drilling, fracking, etc). Oil and Gas leases almost always contain a “Water Testing” clause in the addendum in the lease as well. This clause usually lays out what they will be testing for, how often they will test, and if s test reflects an adverse change from the base line test the company will provide potable water until such a time when the landowner’s water source has been tested and determined to be clean again. This is required by the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act as well as replacing any depleted water sources they disturb.

The bigger fear that citizens should be worrying about is the water that is used for the actual fracking process. The Water Resources Planning Act requires withdrawals of over 10,000 gallons per day to be reported to the DEP and all withdrawals resultant of Marcellus Shale drilling must be registered with either the Susquehanna River Basin Commission or the Delaware River Basin Commission. Additionally, this legislation requires drillers to report the quantity and chemical content of produced water created by individual wells. In 2010, the DEP imposed specific limitations on the amount of total dissolved solids (TDS) permitted in produced water before it could be discharged into local bodies of water. Before such disposal, produced water must be treated until no more than 2,000 mg/L of TDS are present. These strict regulations have encouraged an unprecedented level of research and investigation into produced water recycling in Pennsylvania. Most of them time problems only occur when there are accidental spills of the production water because of automobile accidents or faulty storage on the production vehicles. Pennsylvanians should sleep soundly at night knowing the state and most oil and gas companies are doing everything they can to make sure your water is safe.

Abdalla, C., Drohan, J., Swistock, B., & Boser, S. (2011). Marcellus shale gas well drilling: Regulations to protect water supplies in pennsylvania.Pennsylvania State University
Laura Legere, “DEP: Oil and gas operations damaged water supplies 209 times since end of ’07,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 22, 2014.
Kevin Begos, “4 states confirm water pollution from fracking,” AP, Jan 5, 2013.
Laura Legere, “Sunday Times review of DEP drilling records reveals water damage, murky testing methods,” Times-Tribune, May 19, 2013.
“DEP says 166 water complaints filed in tri-county area,” Herald-Standard, Nov. 15, 2012.