Expand your business and secure good-paying work for when the domestic water well calls slow.
By John Fowler, CSP, CMSP
Most of us spend our careers drilling or servicing water wells for homeowners, communities, or commercial and industrial clients. Bringing clean water to those in need is one of the most essential and rewarding jobs that exist.
However, there is another type of water well drilling/servicing task that is just as important but not as well known: dewatering. As the saying goes, “If it cannot be grown, it must be mined.”
With the demand for everything from cellphones to tablets to electric cars increasing around the world, so is the demand for raw materials. It’s not just metals like copper and gold anymore. Cement, crushed stone, and sand and gravel production have been steadily increasing every year. And one of the biggest threats to a safe and productive mining operation is water.
Things to Consider
Water can contribute to highwall instability in a surface mine, and can flood the workings in an underground mine—damaging mining equipment and bringing production to a standstill. Because of this, many mines have dewatering drilling programs with the goal of monitoring and removing groundwater in and around the mine.
These programs consist of new wells that need to be drilled, old wells that require servicing, and monitoring wells that must be drilled and installed. These dewatering drilling programs are often considered essential and continue even when metal prices are down, and other types of drilling projects are postponed.
The dewatering wells that are drilled are similar to normal water wells, except that the water is not required to be potable. One thing to keep in mind when drilling in a mine, though, is that these wells are often drilled in hard formations. Many companies have to use equipment, bits, and drilling techniques they may not be as familiar with at first. Drilling with large-diameter hammer bits, reverse circulation drilling, and using auxiliary air compressors or boosters are just a few examples.
The existing wells that need servicing require everything from replacing pumps to replacing casing as well. The water in a mine can be acidic, and in some cases, will completely dissolve steel casing in a year or two.
The monitoring wells that are typically drilled range from normal monitoring wells a few hundred feet deep completed with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to much deeper holes completed with instruments such as vibrating wire lines, piezometers, and inclinometers. These instruments monitor in real time the groundwater level and pressure and can detect movement in the formation among many other things.
These instruments are installed in a fashion similar to the installation of a submersible pump. Something rigid is lowered in the hole, which supports the instrument cables. This can be anything from PVC to small-diameter metal pipe to even a continuous fiberglass rod, depending on the mine and how deep the hole is. As the support structure is lowered, the instrument cable is secured to it using duct tape or metal bands.
In some situations, a third-party consultant will be onsite to assist with the installation and monitor the cable and sensors to ensure they are not damaged during installation. Once installed, the hole is typically grouted.
A drilling company that can safely operate on a mine site and comply with both the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) rules and regulations as well as the mine-specific rules can potentially find consistent well-paying work. It used to be that mines didn’t have to be concerned with the contractors on their sites, and if a contractor had an injury or received a citation, that was the contractor’s business and didn’t reflect on the mine.
Things have changed and mines are now responsible for those working on their sites. So now it’s in the best interest of a mine to use contractors who understand and follow state regulations, federal regulations, and the rules of that particular mine.
MSHA’s New Miner Training
When planning to start a project on a mine site, there are four main areas you must understand:
- Training requirements
- Inspection requirements
- Equipment guarding requirements
- Required submissions.
If this is your or your crew’s first time working in a mine, you’ll need MSHA New Miner training. There are two types of New Miner training required by MSHA for working in surface mines: Part 46 training and Part 48 training.
Part 46 training is only accepted in mines such as quarries, sand, and gravel pits, while Part 48 training is accepted in metal/nonmetal mines (copper, gold, and coal), the surface areas of underground mines, and any mine accepting Part 46 training.
Both Part 46 and Part 48 require 24 hours of New Miner training (three 8-hour days) with 8 hours of refresher training every year. Most companies put their crews through Part 48 training so they’re not restricted on what surface mines they can work in.
There are third-party MSHA-approved instructors with approved training plans who have open-enrollment training classes and can put on a class specifically for your company. The classes are full of valuable information and the instructors are great resources for what is required to work on a mine site. Try to find a trainer who has experience with drill rigs and pump servicing.
Online MSHA training is now available, but usually requires the person taking the training to have a webcam to verify they are taking the training. There may be mines that will not accept this type of training, so make sure to ask the mine first if that is something you want to do.
The MSHA website is a great resource and has information on what is required of contractors. Often if you call local mines and ask about third-party trainers, they can give you names. There are even some states or state colleges and universities that provide free or inexpensive classes.
Be Prepared for Inspections
Once you are trained and working on a mine site, you must understand the different types of documented inspections that are required.
The first type of inspection is the daily working place exam. MSHA requires a competent person to inspect the working place at the start of every shift to identify and correct any safety deficiencies. This inspection must be documented and detail any safety deficiencies identified as well as the date the deficiency was corrected. Often this documented inspection is one of the first things a mine or regulatory inspector will ask for during an inspection.
Another type of inspection is the mobile equipment pre-use or pre-operational inspection. All mobile equipment must have a documented inspection before that equipment can be used. Everything from lights to parking brakes are required to be checked. Many mines have a policy that even one light out on a vehicle means the vehicle is out of service and cannot be operated.
There are other inspections required on a mine site ranging from fire extinguishers to first aid kits to electrical tools, and highwalls, but they will be explained in your New Miner training. Often a mine will be happy to share its inspection forms, but if you plan on working on several different mines, it is worth looking into creating your own forms so that your crews aren’t confused by having to use different forms on each project.
Guarding Mining Equipment
Mine sites have strict equipment guarding requirements, especially when it comes to drilling rigs. A guard is required for all moving or rotating parts. Yes, this does include drill rods. A rotation guard needs to be in place to prevent contact with the rotating rods and just know that it is now commonplace to see rotation guards on drill rigs drilling on mine sites. Also, pump rig winch drums need guarding if they are within reach of the people working.
One of the common equipment requirements that is often overlooked is a current pressure vessel inspection on air receiver tanks. Mine sites require a documented pressure vessel inspection from a qualified inspector of all pressure vessels over a certain psi and volume, which varies from state to state. Ask the mine you are at if you’re unsure of the requirements.
Understand the Requirements
Once on a mine site, you must have documented training on your tasks and equipment. Task and equipment training must be documented on an approved training certificate. On a Part 48 governed mine site (metal/nonmetal, surface of an underground mine), the certificates are known as 5000-23 forms or “5000-23s.” The 5000-23 form can be downloaded and printed off the MSHA website.
Part 46-governed sites will accept 5000-23 forms but also have their own training forms which are available on the MSHA website. If it’s a piece of equipment or a major task, you should have documented task training for it. Remember: If you’re being trained on how to operate your Peterbilt 348 4000-gallon water truck, make sure to write “Peterbilt 348 4000-gallon water truck” on your task training form. Never just write “Water Truck.” Be sure to always write the make/model of the equipment.
Your MSHA New Miner training is a great time to ask questions about the training forms. And know: If a mine safety or MSHA inspector sees you operating a piece of equipment unsupervised without documented training, it will be a problem.
Submitting Required Information
Lastly, working on a mine site requires certain information to be submitted. MSHA requires man hours worked on a mine site to be submitted as well as any injuries. To do this, you’ll need to go to the MSHA website and create a MSHA ID# so you can begin reporting. There are also state mining agencies that require submittals, so know what the requirements are where you are at so that you can stay in compliance. If you’re working in a state with a state mining agency, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with someone in that office to better understand the requirements.
Being able to safely work on a mine site and stay in compliance has the potential to expand your business and secure well-paying work for when the domestic water well market slows.
Just understand that working on a mine site is going to take an investment of both time and money. The time is because your crews will require additional training and there are inspections and paperwork that will need to be completed. The money is because time is money, as well as the normal equipment you may have been using safely for years will need additional guarding, and in some cases, additional inspections.
This all may sound intimidating, but some water well companies have been working on mine sites for years and have been great clients to have for those firms.
John Fowler, CSP, CMSP, is a safety manager for National EWP Inc. in North Salt Lake, Utah, and has taught workshops at NGWA’s Groundwater Week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.