America’s 600 underground coal mines would have to spend an estimated $278 million installing sophisticated electronic communications and tracking equipment under a new federal proposal requiring operators to file plans by next June with the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
MSHA’s idea is a compromise of sorts: The communications portion would require equipment that doesn’t qualify as wireless as mandated by federal law. While the agency has approved wireless tracking gear, it says wireless communications equipment won’t be technologically feasible for coal mines by a June 15, 2009, deadline.
Instead, MSHA is proposing nearly wireless systems that provide better two-way communications with the surface from deep underground with hand-held radios linked to a wired backbone.
“They would definitely be an improvement over what’s there now,” said Patricia Silvey, director of MSHA’s Office of Standards, Regulations & Variances.
The agency believes a stopgap is necessary to meet requirements of federal legislation adopted after three high-profile accidents killed 19 miners in 2006. The inability to find and communicate with missing miners hampered rescuers in those accidents, prompting Congress to order the industry to find a way to track and communicate with miners who are often several miles below ground.
The industry’s response to MSHA’s proposal has been muted.
The National Mining Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group, had no immediate comment.
But a big chunk of the industry might have to do little to meet MSHA’s proposed requirements.
West Virginia, the nation’s No. 1 underground coal producer, ordered underground mines to install similar equipment in 2006. Most of the state’s 273 underground operations have some kind of communications or tracking system up and running while they await final safety approval of components for the other.
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