MORGANTOWN -- They're not perfect, but maps of much of the region's old coal mines and pressure readings on the water inside them are available.
That kind of information, stored at West Virginia University's Water Research Institute in Morgantown, could help keep local miners out of the kind of trouble that occurred in Pennsylvania last week, according to the institute's director.
"It lets them zero in on a suspicious area," said Paul Ziemkiewicz, institute director, of how mining companies can use the data to make safer decisions.
"Instead of a blanket approach, they could see where the greatest risks are likely along their barriers."
The combination of maps and water information is only available for the Pittsburgh coal seam to date. That covers much of the North Central region, the Pittsburgh area (not including Somerset County) and part of the Northern Panhandle, he said.
The latter section is still in the works.
The effort was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because of the threat metal-polluted mine water, or acid mine drainage, brings to aquatic life. In the mid-1990s, for example, mine water burst through a Preston County mine's barrier wall and flooded into Cheat Lake and other waterways, Ziemkiewicz said.
The new information does have one flaw, however, he added. The accuracy of the mapping portion of it depends on the accuracy of the original maps. Institute workers used them, a global positioning system and surface features such as bore holes to create the new maps.
"Generally, the smaller and the older the mine, the more fanciful the mining map," Ziemkiewicz said of the original data.
For example, when he was buying a house in Morgantown, he checked maps for potential undermining. While he believed there were no open areas beneath his house when he bought it, he later learned the last three years of area mining activity were never mapped.
Such inaccuracies played a role in the Somerset County incident, in which workers accidentally drilled into an adjacent abandoned mine that was 300 feet closer than maps indicated, according to Associated Press reports.
The water part of the WVU data is based on current information and can be practically used by mine operators, however, he said.
Sensors in local abandoned mines can predict potential water break throughs up to two years in advance, he said in a past interview.
In addition to making active mines safer, that anticipation allows government to target its limited resources, he said. Water can be pumped or other preventative measures can be used to keep the acid mine drainage from entering the watershed.