Mines Lack Safety Equipment 2 Years After Sago Tragedy, U.S. Says

April 10, 2008

Underground coal mines lack stockpiles of breathable air and communications gear for trapped workers, according to a federal report released this week, nearly two years after a series of mine fatalities led to Congress requiring the industry to install more safety equipment.

The report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office blames the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration for failing to act faster. Among other things, the report said poor leadership by the agency has caused mine operators to miss opportunities to install better communications equipment.

Sweeping safety legislation adopted after the deaths of 12 men at the Sago Mine in West Virginia and two other high-profile fatal accidents in 2006 mandated larger stockpiles of emergency air packs, among other measures. The law — designed to better protect the 43,000 workers in the nation’s 700 underground coal mines — also gave MSHA until June 2009 to require wireless communications and tracking equipment underground.

The GAO found that equipment shortages have prevented many mines from placing stockpiles of breathable air underground. But it blamed MSHA for the fact that mines are not installing wireless communications equipment and may miss the deadline.

“While alternatives are currently available, MSHA headquarters officials told us they had no immediate plans to issue guidance detailing what technology would be acceptable … because they wanted to wait and see how new technologies developed,” the GAO wrote.

“It is uncertain whether mine operators will be able to plan for and order the appropriate technology to meet the deadline, thereby missing opportunities to improve the chances of miners trapped in an underground coal mine after an accident to survive until they are able to be rescued.”

Democratic Rep. George Miller of California called it “outrageous” that problems highlighted by the Sago explosion have yet to be solved. Miller, who chairs the House of Representatives’ Education and Labor Committee, released the GAO report.

“Under the Bush administration, MSHA continues to fail to act despite the many promises made to miners and their families on the lessons learned from mining tragedies over the last two years,” Miller said in a statement.

Miller is pushing additional safety legislation that has passed the House but stalled in the Senate.

“Apparently George Miller did not want the facts of the report he commissioned to get in the way of his headline-grabbing remarks,” MSHA spokesman Matthew Faraci said in an e-mail response to The Associated Press. “The report actually noted MSHA’s work to further mine safety including as of January 2008, all underground coal mines ‘had implemented all or most components of their emergency response plans.”‘

MSHA has insisted that any wireless communications system be completely wireless and Faraci noted that such a system does not exist. “MSHA will implement GAO’s helpful recommendations along with other safety improvements already” under way, he said.

Wireless, however, is open to interpretation. In West Virginia, the U.S.’s largest underground coal producer, mines are being required to install wireless systems that typically rely on off-the-shelf equipment and wires as backbones. They are designed to survive and allow two-way communications with the surface after explosions and other accidents.

The mining industry also says there has been progress since 2006. For instance, the National Mining Association says mines have purchased 125,000 additional emergency air packs and have another 125,000 on order.

The industry has been constrained by manufacturing bottlenecks _ two small companies dominate the U.S. air pack market _ and by “the absence of timely guidance” by MSHA, said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based trade group. “We cannot act in advance of the guidance we get from MSHA.”

West Virginia, the nation’s largest underground coal producer, has no such constraints and now requires refuge chambers designed to keep trapped miners alive at least four days and wireless communications and tracking equipment.

All 150 underground mines in the state are expected to have refuge chambers and most should have wireless communications and tracking equipment by the end of the year, said Ron Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.

“The state agencies, the operators, the miners and even MSHA have been working diligently to get to the point where we want to be,” he said. “MSHA is behind West Virginia in no small part due to the fact that their law was passed significantly later than West Virginia’s.”

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