Four years after Sago, few mines have new communications gear
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.
"You hate to regulate everything, but if they're not going to do it, doggone it, we ought to make them," Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat whose father was a coal miner, said during that Jan. 23, 2006, committee hearing.
The same day as the Senate hearing in Washington, West Virginia lawmakers had passed their own bill to require new communications and tracking equipment.
Under that law, mine operators were required by July 2007 to submit plans for new wireless communications and tracking systems. But the state law did not set a firm deadline for when mine operators must have these systems actually installed and working.
In Washington, Congress did not pass a new safety law until after a third 2006 disaster, the May explosion at the Kentucky Darby Mine that killed five miners.
The federal MINER Act tried to set a hard deadline of June 2009 for mine operators to have emergency response plans that included wireless communications and tracking systems. But, the law also gave mine operators a loophole, allowing "alternative means of compliance" if companies argue they can't meet the MINER Act standards.
Watzman, the National Mining Association lobbyist, said lawmakers and the public had unrealistic expectations for communications and tracking equipment. Gear that would work in the harsh environment of underground mines had not yet been developed, and required years of testing, Watzman said.
But, Watzman said, mining operators and equipment vendors were hampered when MSHA took too long to provide concrete guidance for complying with the MINER Act and, even then, gave the industry conflicting information. And, he said, there have been delays in getting new equipment certified by MSHA for use in underground mines.
In April 2008, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report agreed that MSHA's guidance had caused delays. At the same time, House Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., complained MSHA was allowing "ambiguity" in the meaning of the word "wireless" to delay installation of new equipment.
Then, on Jan. 16, 2009 -- four days before President George W. Bush left office -- MSHA issued a policy that concluded "fully wireless communications technology is not sufficiently developed at this time," allowing the industry to avoid that MINER Act requirement.
Earlier this year, Louviere said that MSHA chief Joe Main, a former UMW safety director, had no plans to revoke that policy.
Dennis O'Dell, current safety director for the union, said he believes MSHA should revise the policy to "include language that forces mine operators to push manufacturers to develop increasingly better devices to fulfill the requirements of the law."
Safety experts say that a major problem all along has been that many operators didn't want to spend a lot of money on one new system, only to be told that soon afterward that a newer technology is available and they have to buy it. When the Bush administration in 2004 refused to require text-messaging devices that was part of its rationale.
O'Dell said the UMW "was concerned that the industry practice of addressing the immediate situation and ignoring the potential for future improvements would severely limit the effectiveness of the legislation.
"The practice of simply complying with the intent of a regulation in an effort to avoid a citation does not drive operators to demand better technology for the future from manufacturers," O'Dell said.
O'Dell said that some operators, such as Jim Walter Resources, are already in the process of replacing systems installed after implementation of the MINER Act with another new, more innovative system.
"[MSHA] is charged with ensuring each mine operator initiative 'improved accident preparedness and response' on a 'continuing basis,'" O'Dell said.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.