Of coal mines and methane


Yesterday, an explosion in the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, killed 25 miners. Four others are still missing. It's the largest mining disaster the U.S. has seen in decades. The explosion was massive. "Rails used to move heavy equipment inside the mine were left 'twisted like pretzels' by the force and heat of the blast," according to the Washington Post.

Right now, nobody knows what caused the blast, but one likely candidate is a build-up of methane—natural gas—in the mine. I called Christopher Bise, Ph.D., chair of West Virginia University's Mining Engineering department, to find out how methane gets into the mines, why the weather matters for mine safety and how one of the best ways to protect miners from methane can actually improve the mine's bottom line.

Maggie Koerth-Baker: How does methane get into the mines to begin with?
Christopher Bise: Methane is natural gas—colorless, odorless and tasteless. It just flows through sedimentary strata around coal seams and other rock strata. It's just naturally there and it's highly explosive, if the concentration is between 5% and 15%. The most violent explosions happen around 9% methane concentration. In underground coal mines, they try to control it by pumping in vast quantities of air to keep the concentration below 1%.

MKB: Why is it only dangerous in that narrow range?
CB: You need the right mix of methane and oxygen. Just like any other kind of explosion, you need fuel, oxygen and something to ignite it. The methane is the fuel. If you get too much fuel, you don't have the right ingredients for an explosion.

MKB: What about the ignition source? Where does that come from? I'm sure they're pretty careful about open flames down there.
CB: Oh, yes, they're very careful about open flames. But let's say the mining machinery was ripping away at the coal seam and one of the bits happened to strike a rock and make a spark, like a boy scout starting a fire. Sparks occur. That's why all the machinery has detectors on it. If the methane concentration gets above 1.5%, the detectors are supposed to automatically de-energize the equipment. But that's not foolproof. You could get a rush of methane that happens too fast.

MKB: Are there characteristics that make a methane explosion more likely?
CB: Weather can actually play a role. If the atmospheric pressure is lower, more methane comes out of the rock. The depth of the mine also makes a difference. If a coal seam is 1000 ft. down, it's very hard to have the methane travel and be exposed to atmosphere and move out. If a coal seam is close to the surface and outcrops, that's where methane can escape into atmosphere.

MKB: Is there any reliable way to remove methane from coal mines, or is it a fact of life that you can mitigate, but not really control?
CB: Some companies are using a successful approach called coal seam degasification. In advance of opening a mine, they drill the coal seem and drain off the methane. That way they're getting rid of the natural gas and then they turn around and they're selling it. They're producing an energy product rather than wasting it, and they're making the mine safer. Consol Energy is one of the largest coal mining companies, and they also have a gas division and they make a lot of money selling gas drawn off from their gassy coal mines.

For more information on yesterday's disaster, check out this live-chat interview with Jeff Goodell, author of Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future. He's got a lot of insight into the politics side of mine safety.

Vintage postcard image of coal miners comes from the Flickr stream of j3net.


  1. I sure wish there was a way to make robotic mining technology more sexy. Someday, we’re going to want to extract minerals from Luna or Mars, and having autonomous mining capability is going to matter.

    And then in the shorter term, we might lose less blue collar labor to accidents.

    1. Not “more sexy”, but cheaper would help.

      In general, people do everything and anything for love – but most people seem to love money. At least, the mining engineers I’ve known do.

    2. There *are* robotic solutions. There are fully-automated Longwall mining systems, there are fully-automated blasthole drills, Load-Haul-Dump machines, etc. But there are two issues when it comes to automation.

      1) It’s not cheap, and not applicable to everything. No matter what you do, the technology simply isn’t at the stage where it can completely replace humans. The cost equation is harder to comment on because so many other factors are in play. But yes, especially in countries with lax safety regulations (like the US), mine operators may well choose not to spend the extra capital on equipment and stick to human workers despite the added risk.

      2) Mine operators simply don’t trust automated equipment yet. Those blasthole drills I mentioned? Some mines have them. The drill is capable of executing a full program at the touch of a button, with zero human intervention after it’s been programmed. Most operators put a human operator on it, just in case. There go your savings.

      All that said, you want sexy? I can do that.

      These people have *literally* extracted water from rock, and believe they can do the exact same thing on the moon.

  2. I’m guessing improper ventilation caused this explosion.
    But that’s facile, and obvious. I do not mean to be flip.

    I would not hazard in the absence of evidence any further guesses as to blame or fault:ie as to why the ventilation was inadequate, such that a risk of explosion and collapse could arise, and then actualize.
    There will no doubt be an investigation as to if there ought to be any blame or fault, and as to what went technically wrong . Hopefully this is not a case of “lessons once learned being ignored”, by either blase workers or short-cutting management.

    But upon rare (-ish) occasions, even if you do everything right and by the book, accidents sometimes happen, and thing go ka-blooey. So the Army says – and they have at least got that much right, IMHO. Sometimes the book needs some additions, or a new chapter. And that knowledge can come at a very steep price.

    The question: was everything actually done right and by the “safety book” in this case? – is yet (AFAIK) an open one. It’s a job for the engineers.

    My sympathies and condolences to those who have lost in this tragedy.

    1. @1 – And, unfortunately, with that comes the loss of the jobs of most of the miners. I know that, just like with other industries, automation creates *better* jobs, but coal mining has given a pretty colorful history to parts of the US. Some of it horrible, some of it fascinating and wonderful.

      @2 – The mining companies in the US have gotten pretty careful. My guess is that it was a rapid release of methane. Everything and everyone wears detectors in the mines. It’s not like it used to be in the old days, or like in some of the Chinese mines where the people are the most expendable resource. China’s starting to clean up it’s mining industry, too, though.

      Mine accidents have gotten far more rare than they once were, at least in modernized countries. It’s still a very dangerous job for people with epic moustaches. It takes a lot of guts to go down there. I couldn’t do it.

  3. I live where there are now open cut mines but I suppose that once there were methane problems in the underground mines. I’ll have to ask. It’s a dangerous business and has its own ‘folklore’ and it seems to be associated with a family history of ‘going down the mines’ and a sort of macho camaraderie.

  4. I live where there are now open cut mines but I suppose that once there were methane problems in the underground mines. I’ll have to ask. It’s a dangerous business and has its own ‘folklore’ and it seems to be associated with a family history of ‘going down the mines’ and a sort of macho camaraderie.

  5. You know what would make the lives of coal miners better? Not. Mining. Coal.

    Seriously. Let them put up wind farms on those mountains instead.

    1. But seeing the social devastation left behind when the mines close up isn’t pretty either.

    2. Just drove through the wind farm outside of Palm Springs. What an ugly blight on the land and scenery. And that was in a desert valley. I can just imagine those dopey propellers on the ridge line of a mountain range.

      1. I like them. The hills around Palm Springs are really very sparsely populated by just about any sort of creature, although I hope they switch to the larger windmills that kill fewer birds.

        Massey Coal has racked up 3000 safety violations since 1995. I just searched “3000 Massey” and there are dozens of news articles about it.

          1. The area of the windmills is relatively small compared to the city itself, and are distributed such that they don’t destroy the usefulness of the land completely to local animals. I dare say there are a good fraction as many acres of golf course there as windmills in Palm Springs. Those sicken me.

            Some of the larger animals will avoid the area, definitely. This does bother me, but compared with the complete separation of the San Jacinto range from the neighboring San Bernardinos by the I-10 freeway, it’s negligible. That particular stretch of land is primarily useful to them as a connection between these populations, but that’s already gone down the tubes. The highway isn’t going anywhere.

            Back to the local biome details, the ridges that are optimal for wind power have much lower biomass than the ravines that thread between them, particularly in desert areas. While in general I am leery about interfering with contiguous natural environments, and have spent a lot of time considering how we can avoid destroying the accessibility of fragmented habitat, the layout of the ridges and valleys provides very efficient corridors between the areas, and leaves the most biologically active land there alone.

            In this case I feel fairly confident that the benefits outweigh the costs.

          2. It probably would have been enough to say that my comment was not flippant.

            To get back on topic, clearly there are some disadvantages to the alternatives of coal power, but actually using the methane that would otherwise be flushed out as a safety hazard is a clear win-win.

      2. I’d rather have a little aesthetic “pollution” than carcinegous chemicals in my ground water near coal mines and natural gas wells, where they do “fracturing” now, releasing a lot of very nasty stuff into the ground table.

        As to the owner of the mine, from many news reports, he’s a big cheese at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, buys Congressmen like cheap suits, values money above human lives, his many mines have had hundreds of safety inspection citations during the last few years. Cheaper to have an occasional accident than do all the necessary safety precautions. Typical capitalist big-biznezz pig.

        1. Yup, agree. If that’s the choice. I got a little off-topic there. Wasn’t defending the coal mine or the company that runs it. Just don’t like wind farms in scenic areas, and I don’t care what anyone says. Except for the special few around here whose opinions I value deeply. You know who you are.

      3. I’m sorry to hear that you don’t prefer the look of wind farms. Have you ever driven through an area which has been mined? They don’t call it “mountaintop removal” for nothing, and let me tell you it is FAR worse than the SoCal wind farms (yes, I’ve driven through them as well).

    1. They’d probably be from a Holiness church. I’d go see a Christian rock band from a snake handling church, it’d be fantastic.

  6. Well, most of the reason mine accidents have gone down has nothing to do with improvements in safety practices. The amount of coal mined in drift mines like those in Montcoal has dropped dramatically in favor of surface mining and in deep shaft mining found in Pennsylvania and further west in Kentucky and Tennessee. The mining of coal in the big underground veins is limited to mines owned directly by utility companies (declining) and by scab companies like Massey which has used predatory practices to acquire leases in older drift mining areas like Montcoal and further down the Coal River on Oak Run. They are outlaws of the worst imaginable amoral dimension and Blankenship is a criminal who has been singularly responsible for the destruction of more lives through his alliance with republican politicians and their gutting of mine enforcement than anyone in history (with the possible exception of John D. Rockefeller and his western mines at the beginning of the twentieth century)

    If you don’t live there you have no conception of the desolation visited on the lives of the miners and their communities since the Reagan administration. Reagan’s hatred of unions fueled the decision of the U.S. Supreme court in the Gateway Coal case which broke the United Mine Workers Union by making strikes over safety matters essentially illegal thus opening the gates to Massey “Energy” to de-unionize the southern coal fields.

    Wait and see. This disaster will be used as prima facie evidence that surface mining needs to be given a free hand to destroy the rest of WVA, to make sure there are no more lives lost to “primitive” underground mining technology.


  7. I live 30 miles from the mine and the families have my sympathy. The operator, Massy Energy is one of the most corrupting organizations in the USA, and the only rules they follow are the ones they pay to have put in place. Marsh Fork school, where the national press is now sits in the path of a Massy sludge impoundment, just hundreds of yards from an active mountain top removal site. Given the choice between windmills and dead neighbors, acid mine drainage, mercury and selenium in our water… I’ll pick windmills.

  8. #14’s got it dead on. It’s hard to understand if you don’t live here, but try to imagine the coal barons and company thugs from the industrial revolution with 21st century faces, and you’re pretty close to what’s going on right now in Appalachia’s coal fields. The president of Massey (@donblankenship on Twitter!) is truly the greasiest of humans. He’d be a great movie villain if he didn’t actually exist.

    What will be lost in the argument to keep mountaintop removal mining from expanding as a result of this tragedy is that MTR mines take the dangers that miners face underground, and transpose them onto the people of Appalachia in the form of heavy-metal laden drinking water, polluted air from exponentially increased airborne particulates, and moonscapes where there used to be mountains.

    And @Teller, please, please stick a windfarm behind my house. I’ll trade you the mountaintop removal mine I’ve got now.

  9. Another option for ensuring methane levels do not build up to explosive levels in the mine is to catalytically combust the methane right there in the mine. 1% methane in air is passed across a catalyst similar to the catalytic converter in your car, and the methane is combusted into CO2. CO2 is not explosive, and methane has ~ 24 times the greenhouse gas warming potential of CO2. And as a bonus, the energy released on combustion can be recovered to make low grade utility steam for use inside the mine. This research has been going on for years and years, and can be used today.

    Natural Resources Canada has developed the CH4MIN technology, and I am sure there are others as well:

  10. Canada doesn’t have these terrible events. Unlike here, their miners are unionized and thus are protected from the abuse of the companies that ignore safety regulations and push their employees as far as they can all in the name of their profits. The lives of the miners are nothing more than collateral damage in that pursuit. Weather would not play such a factor if the safety of the miners was first and foremost the goal of this company and every modern means to monitor their well being was installed in the mines. The coal mining industry in the U.S. operates like those in China. That’s how low we have sunk since the Reagan era anti-union propaganda machine started.

    1. Actually a mining disaster very similar almost to the number of fatalities (26) occurred at Westray, NS back in 1992. It was a methane explosion in what was a brand new mine, and was the result of poor safety precautions on the part of the owners. However the damage to the mine made it impossible to get down there to investigate or remove 11 of the bodies, so charges against the owners were later dropped because prosecutors didn’t think they had enough evidence to convict.

      However, the government owned mines, now closed, in Nova Scotia, had a very good safety record compared to the previous private owners.

    2. It was a union member who murdered nine guys up at Giant Mine in the Yukon in 1994. I’m not anti-union at all, just saying Canada’s mining history isn’t all that shiny sometimes either.

  11. It happened an hour ago
    Way down in this tunnel of coal
    The gas caught a fire from somebody’s lamp
    And my buddies are choking in smoke.

    Please name our new baby Joe
    So he’ll grow up like big Joe
    And he’ll make that old mining boss clean out your mines
    So fires can’t break out here no more.

    There’s a long history of mine methane mitigation methods- canaries and the Stephenson/Davy Lamp are probably the most famous.

  12. The sad thing is that, again and again and again, somebody has to die to make something happen.

    I gather that Mr.Blankenship, who seems to be the posterboy of corporate villains to a degree that makes me think somebody bred him in a vat for that exact purpose, will now act all “oh glory god, how could that happen?” and push the blame as far away from him as he can while the ‘public in general’ rails and raves against the government that didn’t act on those 3000 violations, before turning about and singling them out for endangering jobs with all their ‘socialist meddling’ while Mr.Blankenship does a dandy show of ‘imporving safety’ at that one mine, rebuilds himself elsewhere and continues on his merry exploiting ways with all his like-minded buddies, threatening people who have no alternative workline to fall back on with layoffs if they report him.

    History is not a circle, it’s a funnel.

  13. Remember too, that the coal miners who DON’T die in accidents (many preventable) instead suffer the slow debilitation of black lung. There’s a story today in the post about how many times this mine was cited by inspectors for not following the ventilation plan. So there’s a good chance the simply obeying regulations would have prevented this tragedy.

  14. palm springs with all those windmills is ugly as trash. people become miners because that’s about the only jobs in those areas.

  15. Maggie, I think I can give a better answer to your first question than “it’s just naturally there”.

    Methane is produced by rotting matter, or compression of decomposed (rotted) matter. Squeeze an active compost pile and methane comes out. Push a bloated belly and methane comes out. In the case of coal mine methane, it’s produced by the conversion of carboniferous era flora and fauna into coal. No methane, no coal. Gas can move around through gas-permeable strata, obviously (and soft coal is pretty porous compared to anthracite) but it’s equally obviously more likely to be found near the source than just wandering around looking for a cheesesteak and a pack of Kools.

    As for Canada having no mine disasters…

    In the town of Spring Hill, Nova Scotia
    Deep in the heart of the Cumberland Mine
    There’s blood on the coal and the miners lie
    In the roads that never saw sun or sky
    Roads that never saw sun or sky

    Down at the coal face the miners workin’
    Rattle of the belt and the cutter’s blade
    Then the rumble of rock and the walls close round
    Living and the dead men, two miles down
    Living and the dead men, two miles down

    Twelve men lay two miles from the pit shack
    Listenin’ for the drillin’ of a rescuer team
    Six hundred feet of coal and slag
    Twelve men prisoned in a three-foot seam
    Twelve men prisoned in a three-foot seam

    Eight days passed and some were rescued
    Leaving the dead to lie alone
    All their lives they dug their grave
    Two miles of earth for a marking stone
    Two miles of earth for a marking stone

    In the town of Spring Hill you don’t sleep easy
    Oft times the Earth will tremble and groan
    When the Earth is restless, miners die
    Bone and blood be the price of coal
    Bone and blood be the price of coal

Comments are closed.