‘Rat hole’ mining dynamics puzzle top rescue agencies

‘Rat hole’ mining dynamics puzzle top rescue agencies

An Odisha fire service personnel struggles to install a water pump near the Meghalaya mining mishap site on Thursday. Photo credit/East Jaintia Hills district administration, Meghalaya

From Navy divers armed with underwater remote-operated vehicles to NDRF’s deep divers and Odisha fire service personnel, country’s top rescue agencies continued to struggle with Meghalaya’s 'rat hole' mining dynamics, even on the 22nd day of the search for the 15 missing miners.

The miners got trapped on December 13 in a 350-feet deep coal mine in East Jaintia Hills district, in which they reportedly dug 'rat holes' to extract coal. But water gushed in from a nearby abandoned shaft, which reached about 70-feet.

The deep divers of the NDRF, who were rushed to the mishap site on December 14, sought more powerful pumps to pump out water as their deep divers could not operate beyond 30 to 40 feet under water. Sonars, used by the NDRF team, too could not locate anything under the muddy water.

After drawing flak from the Opposition parties including, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, for reportedly neglecting the rescue for about two-weeks, the Centre rushed a 15-member Navy diving team and at least 25 personnel of Odisha fire service department on Saturday.

Next day, search by Navy divers and their underwater remote-operated vehicle could locate only a wooden structure and some coal in the shaft’s bed under water.

“This suggests they (miners) dug horizontal holes in the base of the vertical shaft and crawled inside to extract coal. But it is not possible to be sure about it till water is pumped out, so that our divers can go further down and verify,” said a rescuer, while admitting that the ‘rat hole’ dynamics was puzzling for them.

The miners follow a primitive method of mining by digging pits ranging from five to 100 m to reach the coal seam. Thereafter, tunnels are made into the seam, sideways, to extract coal which is first brought into the pit by using a conical basket or a wheel barrow and then taken out. Many of such pits are left abandoned and are flooded during rains.

The Odisha team struggled to take their 10 powerful water pumps due to lack of roadways from the highway to the mishap site.

“There is practically no road. It’s in the middle of the hills and even a jeep takes two-and-half hours to reach the site from the highway. This delayed us from installing the powerful pumps,” Santosh Kumar Singh, the assistant commandant of NDRF’s first battalion, based here, told DH over the phone. Singh along with 70 NDRF personnel are camping at the site since December 14.

The Odisha team on Tuesday started pumping out water from a nearby shaft, but could reduce the water level ranging between six inches to 1.4 feet. The water level, however, was again found same the next morning.