W.Va. Delays Deployment of Steel-Shelled Mine Shelters

December 21, 2007

West Virginia’s mine safety chief has delayed deployment of steel-shelled shelters in underground coal mines because they could not meet a state standard for internal temperatures during testing.

Ron Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, issued the delay after state and federal mine safety officials reviewed the results of tests conducted on both steel-shelled and inflatable shelters, the agency said in a news release.

The airtight chambers are designed to provide at least four days of oxygen and other life support for miners who can’t escape after a fire, explosion or other underground disaster. State regulations require the chambers to maintain an internal temperature that cannot exceed 95 degrees.

Manufacturers of the shelters were notified of the problem and asked to find a solution, the agency said.

Only six steel-shelled shelters have been ordered by coal operators for use in West Virginia mines. More than 300 inflatable shelters have been ordered, the agency said.

Delaying use of the steel-shelled shelters will potentially affect only three mines, said Randy Harris, engineering adviser for Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.

Harris said the problem was not serious and regulators were confident that they would be resolved.

Tests also revealed a need for improved training in the use and care of shelters during an emergency. Regulators also suggested minor modifications to improve both types of shelters’ carbon dioxide scrubbing and oxygen supply rates, the state agency said.

The 96-hour field tests were conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Federal and state mine safety regulators reviewed the results Dec. 19 at a meeting in Morgantown.

West Virginia moved to require shelters after a fatal methane gas explosion at the Sago Mine and a fatal fire at the Aracoma Coal Co. Alma No. 1 mine killed 14 men in January 2006.

Eleven of the 12 men killed at Sago died of carbon monoxide poisoning when they couldn’t find their way out of the mine and were forced to build a makeshift barricade. Two miners died at the Alma mine after they lost their way in heavy smoke.

Illinois is the only other state to require shelters in underground coal mines.

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