State, feds delayed action on mine shelters
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Concerns about potentially faulty underground mine refuge shelters are much broader than previously reported, but federal and state regulators delayed action on the matter for months, interviews and a review of public records showed this week.
Corroded and improperly sized fittings could be a problem for more than 1,500 shelters in use in coal mines across the country -- including both inflatable, "tent-design" units and other, hardened steel structures, officials acknowledged and records indicated.
Federal and state mine safety officials have understood the problem for months, but only began taking enforcement action in September. Even then, firm steps were delayed at the behest of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, after coal industry lobbyists complained about the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training's plans.
"There was concern about how it was being handled and who was handling it," said Chris Hamilton, a vice president for the West Virginia Coal Association.
The controversy creates a cloud around one of the major reforms put in place by then-Gov. Joe Manchin and by Congress following the Sago Mine Disaster and the Aracoma Mine fire in 2006. Twelve miners died at Sago and two at Aracoma before rescuers could reach them deep underground.
At Manchin's urging, lawmakers mandated that all West Virginia coal miners have access to an emergency shelter that could provide them fresh air, food and water in the event of a fire or explosion. Congress followed up with similar federal requirements for mines nationwide. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration had the authority to require rescue chambers since 1969, but did so only after a more specific congressional mandate following the 2006 disasters.
The latest controversy began in January, when state inspectors were alerted to an incident involving an inflatable shelter made by the A.L. Lee Corp. in use at an unidentified mine in West Virginia. Company officials had found the door of the unit open and several five-gallon drinking water containers tossed outside of the unit. State officials were told the company believed it was an act of vandalism.
State investigators, though, quickly determined that it was a mechanical failure on compressed oxygen tanks used to inflate the shelter.
"It was determined that a brass fitting attaching one of the oxygen cylinders had failed, allowing for a rapid release of the oxygen into the interior of the shelter," said a Jan. 13 state report. "The additional volume released exerted sufficient pressure to force the access door open and expel some of the contents stored near the door."
At the time, state officials said that "no immediate danger is posed by the identified issue" and that no actions by mine operators were necessary. State officials did ask shelter manufacturers to provide them with "an evaluation of the attributes of their equipment that would prevent such an occurrence" or action plans for inspections and potential corrective actions.
A week later, on Jan. 20, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration issued an alert to the mining community, warning of what it called a "catastrophic failure" of a brass fitting on the shelter's oxygen cylinders.
MSHA officials warned that the brass fittings did not meet industry guidelines. They measured 40 percent thinner and 8 percent shorter than recommended by the Compressed Gas Association, according to the MSHA alert. The alert also suggested that leak-detection fluids containing ammonia could have damaged the fittings during routine checks of the units.
Federal regulators recommended -- but did not order -- examinations of all underground mine rescue shelters to ensure that fittings met industry guidelines and were not damaged.
A week after the MSHA alert, a lab contracted by A.L. Lee Corp concluded the fittings on the shelter in question were corroded, probably because of "sulfur dioxide gas in a moist coal-mine environment."
Leonard Urtso, president of A.L. Lee, said his company worked quickly to examine all 133 of its company's inflatable units in use in coal mines in West Virginia. The company found only one other unit on which fittings had "developed some corrosion." In an interview, Urtso downplayed any potential for the fittings to cause a problem for miners.
"Just because there is a crack doesn't mean there's going to be a catastrophic event," Urtso said. "It just means there's going to be a leak."
Urtso said the units are routinely checked by mine operators and examined every six months by his company, reducing the chances of a problem. "Your chances of hitting the lottery are a lot better than that happening," he said.
Still, in February, A.L. Lee reported finding cracked fittings on a third unit at another mine, and MSHA again recommended -- but did not order -- that mine operators have shelter manufacturers examine their units and fix any problems.
From May through July, additional reports from a contractor for A.L. Lee and by a Department of Labor lab both confirmed potential problems with fitting corrosion.
By September, state mine safety Director C.A. Phillips was preparing to issue an order to for the first time require mine operators and shelter manufacturers to inspect units for potential fitting corrosion. Phillips and other state officials were becoming especially concerned because similar brass fittings were used on all types of underground shelters, not just the A.L. Lee inflatable models.
At some point, though, coal industry officials raised concerns about the state's plans with both the governor's office and the Department of Commerce, which oversees the state mine safety agency.
Hamilton said the coal association had thought all along the January incident was an isolated one, and that state officials were giving the industry deadlines that were too tight to conduct inspections of all of their shelters.
"They sprang an awful lot of information on the industry in a relatively short period of time," Hamilton said. "Those concerns were expressed across the board."
But in a separate interview, coal association President Bill Raney said operators and shelter manufacturers had taken the situation very seriously from the start.
"Everybody has been checking these -- all of the manufacturers and all of the operators," Raney said. "We're well along the way."
Still, the governor's office told mine safety agency officials to put together a briefing to explain its findings and its planned actions to the industry.
Jacqueline A. Proctor, a spokeswoman for Tomblin, said the governor's office "did not intervene at the request of any organization" and has "full confidence" in Phillips.
Proctor said the governor's office routinely monitors enforcement actions by state agencies, and did so in this instance to ensure the order was clear and contained deadlines that industry would be able to meet.
But the additional meeting added to delays in action, and had the effect of putting off any formal action by the state until after the Oct. 4 general election, in which Tomblin faced Republican Bill Maloney, a Morgantown drilling company executive whose campaign promoted his involvement in a major mine rescue in Chile.
State officials had drafted one order dated Sept. 29 and shared it with mining industry lobbyists during a meeting last Friday. But at the industry's request, the order was rewritten to ensure previous inspections by manufacturers could count toward one mandated by the order and to allow waivers of inspection and repair deadlines.
Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers, said union officials only learned about the shelter problems in the last few weeks and were "troubled" by a lack of transparency on the issue.
Smith noted a similar lack of transparency or discussion with miners' advocates in the ongoing investigation of major problems with the CSE Corp.'s SR-100, the most widely used emergency breathing device in the coal industry.
"This is not the first time this has happened," Smith said. "We were again the last people to know."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.