Chris Mark

This week’s larrikin is a world leader in coal mine ground control. Christopher Mark’s ground breaking research has resulted in the development of a range of design methods that are used throughout the world. His contributions to mining engineering practice include Analysis of Longwall Pillar Stability (ALPS), the Coal Mine Roof Rating (CMRR), the Analysis of Retreat Mining Pillar Stability (ARMPS), guidelines for control of horizontal stress, and the Analysis of Roof Bolt Systems (ARBS).
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Chris Mark, Rock Mechanics Section Chief, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Pittsburgh Research Laboratory

Staff Reporter

Mark entered the mining industry in 1976 as a general underground laborer in a Boone County, West Virginia coal mine. He subsequently obtained BS, MS, and PhD degrees in Mining Engineering from Penn State. His doctoral research focused on longwall ground control, and resulted in the ALPS pillar design method. In the early 1980's he worked for a geotechnical consulting firm in Chicago and joined the Bureau of Mines (now NIOSH) Pittsburgh Research Laboratory (PRL) as a specialist in coal mine ground control in 1987.

Mark has studied ground conditions at hundreds of mines around the world, and has authored more than 100 technical papers. He is Co-Chairman of the International Conference on Ground Control in Mining, which is held annually in Morgantown, WV. His numerous awards include the SME Rock Mechanics and Stefanko Best Paper Awards, the U.S. Bureau of Mines Engineer of the Year Award, and the U.S. National Committee for Rock Mechanics Applied Research Award. His current research projects include prevention of rock fall injuries with roof screening, mine design to control multiple seam interactions, and ground control for extremely weak roof.

His favorite hobby is canoe camping in the Canadian lake country with his family: “We paddle and portage into the back country and sometimes don’t see another person for days! I also run nearly every day, and look forward to finding new places to run when I am on the road. For relaxation, I read history and biography books.”

ILN:What got you into the coal/longwall industry?

CM: While I was growing up in New Jersey, I didn’t know anything about mining. After high school I lived in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Charleston, WV. I worked cleaning oil tanks in a refinery, loading packages in UPS trucks, on construction sites as an electrician’s helper, washing dishes in a truck stop, and probably some other jobs I can’t remember. When a friend told me there were good-paying jobs in the mines in southern West Virginia, it sounded like a great idea.

ILN:Why become a scientist?

CM: After a year underground, I was hooked. Mining fascinated me. I decided that if I could study mining, maybe going to college wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

ILN:What made you get into research in coal mines rather than actually becoming a miner? (Where you ever a miner?)

CM: I really hadn’t considered research until I took my first class in rock mechanics. I remember the Professor, Dick Bieniawski, presented about 10 formulas for sizing coal pillars. When he was done, one of the students asked, “But which one is the right one?” To which Prof. Bieniawski answered, “That’s for you to use your engineering judgment to decide.” That sounded a whole lot more interesting to me than the cookbook solutions it seemed were available in other aspects of mining engineering.

ILN:What area of research gets you excited about the coal industry?

CM: Ground control has always had a special interest for me. The two mines I worked in underground as a miner both had poor roof. I had to timber up several areas while the roof creaked and groaned around me. Rock falls were a constant challenge. I’ve often thought that if I had happened to get jobs in mines with good roof, I might be a dentist today.

ILN:What is the most important research project completed in the history of coal mining?

CM: It's hard to point to a single project, because most of the real technological changes that have taken place have required a large number of pieces to fall into place. But in ground control, I think it would be hard to find a more exciting time then when the US mines shifted from timber supports to roof bolting during the 1950’s.

ILN:What do you rate as your most important piece of research and why?

CM: I think the most important thing I have done is to develop a research approach that relies on going to the mines and studying their ground control experience in a scientific way. Guys like Miklos Salamon and Jack Parker were pioneers of this empirical technique, but I think I have really shown how powerful it can be. Its beauty is that each mine becomes a full-scale experiment we can learn from.

But you have to be willing to listen to what the mines are trying to tell you! I think my underground experience, and the fact that I still love going underground, has been essential to my success with empirical research. Another advantage of the empirical method is that the solutions it suggests are generally so simple, reliable, and easy to explain. I think this is why design methods like ALPS, ARMPS, and ALTS have been so widely accepted.

ILN:Do you think there is an education and skills sourcing crisis in the mining industry?

CM: I used to think of the mining industry in the US as the true fountain of youth. The years would go by, but I always seemed to be one of the youngest guys around! Now, fortunately, that is starting to change a little bit, but I still see an awful lot of grey and balding heads at conferences. There is little doubt that the passing of the 70’s “Energy Crisis Generation” will mean a difficult transition for the industry.

ILN:Do you think scientists and those who work behind the scenes in the coal industry get the recognition they deserve?

CM: I think we do, in general. It’s the nature of our job to give papers, put on short courses, and be asked for advice. There is plenty of opportunity for a researcher to achieve recognition if they work at it. One of the things I love most about my job is the opportunity to travel, to meet miners from all over, and to learn about all kinds of mining operations. Very few people in our industry get to see the whole big picture like I do.

ILN:Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?

CM: One thing I would like to do is spend more time with the history of mining. Coal mining has changed so dramatically during the past century, and it has had such a huge impact on so many people, and on society as a whole. I’d love to have more time to really dig into this history and see what lessons it has for us.


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