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Methane Gas Problem Explainer

We all know the adage of the canary in the coal mine. Tony looks into a possible meteorological, chemical and geological tie in to the methane gas problem encountered in the Massey Mine disaster.

Methane Gas in Montcoal Mine

As the effort to find 4 trapped miners intensified in Raleigh County, rescuers encountered high levels of methane gas on Thursday morning. Since methane (CH4 chemically speaking) can be explosive in high enough concentrations, the team of 32 were turned away after penetrating 1,000 feet (2 city blocks) into the mine.

Beginning on Wednesday afternoon, engineers had begun the laborious process of drilling two holes into the mine. The idea was to release the dangerous gases that naturally build up in the mine after an explosion, thereby permitting rescue teams to conclude their search for the 4 missing miners.

Then Thursday morning chemical tests showed that levels of methane, carbon monoxide and hydrogen had increased and were a hazard to the crew inside the mine. The crew was pulled from the mine until levels of the 3 gases return to normal.

Of particular concern was the unexpected rise in methane gas in the Massey mine. Speculation is that the drop in atmospheric pressure outside the mine led to a rise in methane gas inside. One plausible explainer is that as air pressure outside the mine fell, the relatively higher pressure inside the mine led to an evacuation of gases from the mine to the outside, Dr. Mike Castellani, chair of Marshall’s Chemistry department told me this afternoon.

But that evacuation of gas was supposed to relieve not increase the methane gas build-up.

So what happened?

Dr. Dewey Sanderson, Marshall Geology Chair went on the explain how the methane levels may have increased. “Coal mines have natural fractures in the rock which house methane. Any cleat (gap) in the rock can spew methane into the chamber”, Dewey told me.

Meteorologically, as the day’s cold front moved in and rain clouds gathered, air pressure fell steadily. Think of falling air pressure as a drop in the amount of air. Less pressure equals less weight of the air. To fill in that “relative” vacuum or dearth of air, gas would have been siphoned from the mine.

But the amount of "air/gas" space in the mine is fixed. If oxygen is siphoned out, there would be room for methane to fill in the void from the cleats in the rock. This could lead to a higher concentration of CH4 in the mine and lower values of oxygen(air).

This theory has been confirmed by officials on the site of the coal mine this Thursday evening.

Air pressure is now rising as colder air is moving in, so if the morning pressure fall was responsible for the rise in CH4, the afternoon and nighttime rise should correct that.

Dr. Castellani added that there “is some false information out there that methane is toxic. It is not. Methane is flammable in high enough concentration and can also be a hazard to breathe in large enough quantities".


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