"We have encouraged MSHA to be aggressive in dealing with this issue, and we believe this initiative meets that goal," said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers union.
In 1969, Congress required coal operators to provide all miners with an emergency device that would provide them at least one hour of breathable air to help them escape in the event of an underground fire or explosion.
The SR-100 model uses a chemical process to generate oxygen, based in part on a reaction with carbon dioxide being exhaled by its user. Miners are supposed to start the unit by exhaling into it.
Over the years, coal miners had expressed complaints about SCSRs not starting or appearing to start slowly. Government and industry officials generally dismissed those complaints, saying the real problem was that miners didn't understand how to use the units properly.
After Sago, McCloy testified that the SR-100s of four of the 12 miners trapped by the Jan. 2, 2006, explosion wouldn't start.
MSHA dismissed McCloy's complaints. "Some of the miners had trouble donning their SCSRs and breathing through them," the MSHA investigation report on Sago said. "However, testing indicated that the units produced oxygen as intended."
Later, lawmakers in West Virginia and then Washington also ordered companies to add extra breathing devices to be stored in key locations underground. They took no action about the SR-100 concerns described by McCloy.
Separate reports by mine safety expert Davitt McAteer and the UMW's safety department recommended much tougher scrutiny of the SR-100 and the speedy development of better and more reliable SCSRs that were also easier to use.
Under federal regulations, MSHA and NIOSH jointly certify the devices as complying with government standards, and the agencies have an agreement through which they are jointly charged with dealing with any problems that come up later when devices are in use.
In 2010, MSHA and NIOSH launched a joint investigation of problems that were eventually traced to the oxygen cylinders used in the initial start-up of the SR-100 devices. Initially, CSE said it had instituted a "recall" of the troubled units, but later conceded it had not actually ordered coal companies to stop using the devices.
In lawsuits after the Sago disaster, families of the miners were investigating concerns that the SR-100 cylinders, made by a vendor for CSE, somehow leaked, leaving the units without enough oxygen to start properly. Those suits were settled, and the terms were kept confidential.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.