W.Va. Expected to Approve First Coal Mine Shelters

March 12, 2007

Emergency shelters are about to become a reality in West Virginia coal mines.

The state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training is expected to approve the first underground shelter designs this week, Randy Harris, the agency’s engineering consultant, said last week.

The milestone is a first step toward installing airtight shelters in every underground coal mine in the state. All are required to install shelter chambers under a state law passed in January 2006.

The requirement is part of a flurry of rules passed after 12 miners died in the Sago Mine explosion and two others were unable to escape a conveyer belt fire at a Logan County mine in January 2006. One Sago miner was killed in the Jan. 2, 2006, explosion, but 11 others were trapped underground and died of carbon monoxide poisoning. A 13th miner was rescued after more than 40 hours underground.

While the industry supports the requirement, coal mine operators remain cautious about shelters, said Chris Hamilton, senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

“It’s something that’s never been adapted to coal, thus your thousands of experienced miners have no experience,” Hamilton said. “We’re still on the bottom side of a learning curve here as an industry, but we are committed to evaluating their use.”

The idea of airtight shelters has been kicked around coal mining for decades and has long enjoyed support from the United Mine Workers union. Congress first gave the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration authority to require them in coal mines in 1969, but the agency has never taken that step. Nor have other coal states, although shelters have been used in other types of underground mines for years.

The presence of vast quantities of readily combustible coal, however, has made shelters controversial. Even supporters say shelters are a last resort for miners who find escape impossible.

“It’s critical to persevere and overcome those challenges and just exhaust all possible means of escape before electing to barricade oneself underground,” Hamilton said.

The first approvals are expected to set off a flurry of orders. Shelter manufacturers such as Allentown, Pa.-based ChemBio Shelter Inc. say mines have been asking for price quotes, but have been waiting for the state to act before placing orders. ChemBio and Atlanta-based Strata Products Inc. have submitted inflatable designs for approval. Several other manufacturers are seeking approval for metal shelters.

To be approved, shelters must supply enough oxygen, food, water and other necessities to keep miners alive for at least 48 hours.

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