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More mine rescue reforms needed, report says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal regulators should revisit and potentially strengthen their requirements for coal operators to provide emergency breathing devices for miners to use in escapes from underground mine fires or explosions, a new National Academy of Sciences report recommends.

Industry and government agencies also need to better coordinate their emergency response planning and improve on efforts to train miners in underground evacuations, according to the report, issued Thursday by a panel appointed by the academy's National Research Council.

The 158-page report calls for more improvements in the nation's coal-mine rescue system, despite changes already required by the 2006 Miner Act, passed by Congress in the wake of the Sago and Aracoma mine disasters in West Virginia and the Darby mine disaster in Kentucky.

"Escaping during the early stages of a mine emergency is critical, and every emergency has different circumstances, resources and physical and psychological demands," said Ohio State University engineer William Marras, chairman of the panel that wrote the report.

"Many improvements in mine safety, especially regulation, have historically followed major mine disasters," Marras said in a prepared statement. "A proactive, integrated approach is needed to improve the best chances for success."

The study, sponsored by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, is the latest report to urge beefed-up mine rescue efforts.

Similar reports were issued by the National Academy of Sciences in 1969 and 1981, and independent reviews following more recent mine disasters in 2006 and 2007, and the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in 2010 made similar recommendations.

"The emergency response to the Upper Big Branch disaster raised concerns about how decision-making was conducted in the command center and the manner in which mine rescue teams were deployed underground," an independent team led by longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer concluded in its report on Upper Big Branch. "Standard protocols were not followed, effective records were not kept, and rescuers' lives were placed in jeopardy."

Among other things, the new report calls for mine operators to conduct annual mine evacuation practice exercises that would be more broad and detailed than the quarterly drills required by law.

"The scenario should test all aspects of the mine's emergency response plan and mine emergency evacuation and firefighting program to assure that these are effective and up to date," the report said.

The report also urged NIOSH and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to review their requirements for emergency supplies of breathable air, and consider more advanced technologies than the self-contained, self-rescuers that have had repeated problems.

"Supplied-air devices should be easy to use and easily accessible," the report said. Among other things, the report recommended devices that allow communication between the miners who are wearing them.

The report also urged MSHA to streamline the process it uses to review new technologies and authorize their use in the nation's underground mines. The existing process, the report said, "delays the development and introduction of new technology in U.S. mines."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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