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Thousands of miner breathing units being recalled

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More than 4,000 emergency breathing devices are being recalled from U.S. coal mines after the manufacturer, CSE Corp., discovered a problem that could have prevented the units from starting properly.

The recall involves CSE's SR-100, the most widely used self-contained self rescuer, or SCSR, in the nation's coal industry. An estimated 70,000 units are in the field.

The issue prompting the recall is similar to complaints raised about the SR-100 by Sago Mine disaster survivor Randal McCloy and by families of several of the miners who died at Sago.

Officials from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration announced a joint investigation with the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health a week after Pittsburgh-based CSE reported the problem to regulators.

"We are aware of the problem and we are looking into it," said NIOSH spokesman Fred Blosser.

Scott Shearer, president of CSE, said the recall is isolated to one lot of SCSRs that was manufactured in May 2009. The company believes less than 1 percent of that lot of 5,000 units may be affected, but is recalling all 4,071 from the lot that had already been sold.

"We're not taking any chances," Shearer said in an interview Friday.

Ron Wooten, director of the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, was waiting Friday afternoon for CSE to provide a list of mines in West Virginia where the recalled units could have been shipped.

Under federal and state laws, coal-mine operators must provide SCSRs as a tool to help miners escape underground mine fires and explosions.

The SR-100 model made and marketed by CSE uses a chemical process to generate the oxygen needed for a 60-minute supply of breathable air.

Generally, SR-100 units are started by pulling a large orange tab that activates an oxygen cylinder. The cylinder inflates a breathing bag. Once a miner starts breathing through the bag, the exhaled gases react with the unit's chemicals to generate more oxygen for the miner.

SR-100s can also be started manually if the oxygen cylinder fails to inflate the breathing bag. But that process involves breathing ambient air and exhaling into the mouthpiece to start the chemical reaction.

In a notice to SR-100 users, issued Thursday, CSE said it had identified "a possible issue with a component part" involving a shipment of oxygen cylinders.

"CSE is investigating the potential that the breathing bag in the affected SR-100 units may receive less than the optimum amount of oxygen necessary for full inflation, if the unit is started with the oxygen cylinder," CSE said in the notice.

Shearer said the problem was discovered during routine testing of one of about 1,200 SR-100s from the same batch that had not yet been sold. Further testing found the same issue with 11 more from that batch, he said. NIOSH documents indicate the initial problem unit contained only 2.5 liters of compressed oxygen, instead of the normal 8 to 10 liters.

The initial problem was discovered on Feb. 17 and reported to MSHA and NIOSH the following day, officials said. The first notice to miners was issued by CSE Thursday night and posted on government Web sites Friday.

In its notice, CSE advised miners, "If for any reason a unit does not inflate the breathing bag, the user should don another unit if one is readily available. If a second unit is not readily available, the manual start should be used."

Over the years, coal miners have complained repeatedly about SCSRs not starting or appearing to start slowly. Government and industry officials have generally dismissed those complaints. They said miners were not properly trained and did not understand how their SCSRs worked.

Months after the Sago disaster, McCloy said that SCSRs of four of the 12 miners trapped by a Jan. 2, 2006, explosion would not start. McCloy described how he tried especially hard to start the rescuer that belonged to his mining partner, Jerry Groves.

"I fought with it for I don't know how long, trying to mess with that valve, blow air through it, or anything I could do, but nothing would work," McCloy told investigators.

In lawsuits filed after the disaster, miners' families targeted CSE and the supplier of its oxygen cylinders, South Africa-based African Oxygen Ltd., or Afrox. Court records indicate the families' lawyers were investigating concerns that the oxygen cylinders somehow leaked, leaving them without enough oxygen to properly start the unites.

But most of the suits against CSE have been settled, with three more families reaching deals with the company after mediation sessions last month, court records show.

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


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