CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More than four years after the Sago Mine disaster, fewer than one of every 10 underground coal mines in the United States has added improved communications and tracking equipment that could help miners escape an explosion or fire.
Last week, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration released an updated count of mine operators who have installed new communications and tracking gear required by Congress after Sago and a series of other disasters in 2006.
Nationwide, 415 active underground mines are required to have added this equipment. But, according to MSHA's most recent count, only 34 have such equipment installed and fully operational. That's a little more than 8 percent, according to the MSHA data, which was released during a mine safety conference at Wheeling Jesuit University.
West Virginia is doing a little better. About 16 percent of the state's underground mines have installed and fully operational systems. But because of the state's larger number of underground mines, that percentage still means that 121 mines here do not have advanced communications and tracking. Twenty-three out of 144 West Virginia mines have complied, according to the MSHA data.
On Friday, Sen. Robert C. Byrd said he planned to ask MSHA about the matter and push to "remove any hurdles" to making advanced mine rescue systems available to workers.
"I want to be sure that nobody is dragging their feet on this matter," Byrd, D-W.Va., said through a spokesman. "It is too important, and the lives of miners could be at stake."
MSHA officials declined last week to make an agency official available for an interview for this story.
In a prepared statement Friday, MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said a number of "bugs" have delayed installation of some systems, and cited a small number of manufacturers and long lead times for delivery as other reasons for the "relatively low number of complete installations."
Louviere also noted that additional systems have been installed in West Virginia, but that they don't meet MSHA requirements because the state's rules do not mandate as wide a coverage across underground mine areas as MSHA requires.
Industry and labor officials offered a variety of explanations for delays in deploying communications and tracking gear, but agreed that more needs to be done on the issue.
"It's not good, and it's a situation I don't think anyone is happy with," said Bruce Watzman, a lobbyist on safety issues for the National Mining Association.
Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers union, pointed out that 92 mines nationwide have new systems partially installed and another 128 are in the process of doing so.
"We believe that the more responsible operators are working to meet the requirements of the act, in concert with the development and availability of the technology," Smith said.
At Sago, 12 miners became trapped deep inside an International Coal Group mine in Upshur County following a huge methane explosion on Jan. 2, 2006. The miners had no way to communicate with the surface, and they died before rescue crews could find them. Three weeks later, two more miners died when they became lost while trying to escape a mine fire at Massey Energy's Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County.
Less than a week after Aracoma, a U.S. Senate committee heard testimony about mine communications and tracking systems that could have saved the workers at Sago and Aracoma.
Two years earlier, the Bush administration had scuttled proposals to require at least one new technology -- a wireless text-messaging device -- in underground mines. And at that hearing, Bush administration officials questioned the availability and reliability of such technologies, despite MSHA reports that touted the same sorts of equipment. Without a legal requirement, few in the mining industry added such gear.