Kentucky Lawmakers Want Faster Med-evacs after Mine Accidents

March 19, 2008

A severely burned Ora Murphy lay on a gurney at a coal mining operation in the remote mountains of eastern Kentucky waiting for a medical helicopter to transport him to a hospital nearly 100 miles away.

Problem was, no one had the GPS coordinates needed to guide the pilot. And finding Long Fork Coal Co. in the heavily mined Appalachian coalfields was like trying to find a needle in a hay stack.

Murphy’s situation last year has sparked legislation in Kentucky that would require coal companies to post their GPS coordinates at mine sites and to provide them to emergency dispatching centers. The measure has already been approved by a Senate committee and is on a fast-track for a vote in the full Senate, possibly as early as next week.

State Sen. Ray Jones II, D-Pikeville, said the measure, if passed, would save lives by helping to get injured miners to hospitals quicker.

“The whole purpose of this is to make sure that if there’s an accident and someone is injured, that valuable time isn’t wasted trying to describe the directions to the helicopter flight service,” Jones said.

Murphy, 60, of Grayson, said he’s not sure how long he waited for the medical helicopter to arrive after electrical circuitry arched and exploded on May 28, but, with burns over 40 percent of his body, every minute was anguishing.

“It seemed like it took forever to me,” Murphy said.

A ground ambulance took him to the evacuation site of a nearby coal company where Murphy finally was loaded into the medical helicopter for the flight to a burn unit at Cabell-Huntington Hospital in West Virginia, where he stayed for 44 days.

Murphy, an electrician, was working in the mining company’s coal washing plant when he was injured. He still is recovering from the ordeal.

Jones, who is also an attorney representing Murphy in a lawsuit, said he is proposing the legislation in hopes that it will prevent other miners from facing similar delays.

“It’s unclear how long it took to actually get accurate directions to the helicopter,” Jones said. “Fortunately, in this case, it didn’t cost this gentleman his life. But, on the other hand, it very easily could have.”

Jones’ bill has broad support in the General Assembly. It passed the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday by a 11-0 vote, and was grouped with other bills for a quick vote on the Senate floor.

The Kentucky Coal Association, which lobbies on behalf of mining companies, hasn’t taken an official stand on the proposal.

“We’re still looking at it,” said Bill Caylor, president of the group. “The intent is good, but we may see some practical issues in implementing this good idea.”

State Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, said he would expect the measure to sail through the House, as well.

“It sounds like a pretty good idea,” said Yonts, who sponsored legislation last year intended to make coal mines safer for workers.

Yonts’ law, which followed one of the deadliest years in recent history for Kentucky coal miners, required that every crew working underground have access to a methane gas detector. That was in reaction to an explosion in 2006 in a Harlan County mine that killed five of the 16 miners who died on the job that year.

Among other provisions of the mine safety law, two medics must be on duty during working hours at all underground mines and vehicles be kept near work areas to get injured miners to the surface quickly.

Yonts said he believes the Jones proposal would strengthen existing mine safety laws if it passes.

“This isn’t going to cost anybody anything to do this,” Jones said, “but it most likely at some point will save somebody’s life.”

The legislation is Senate Bill 213.

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