CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Concerns about potentially faulty underground mine refuge shelters are much broader than previously reported, but federal and state regulators delayed action on the matter for months, interviews and a review of public records showed this week.
Corroded and improperly sized fittings could be a problem for more than 1,500 shelters in use in coal mines across the country -- including both inflatable, "tent-design" units and other, hardened steel structures, officials acknowledged and records indicated.
Federal and state mine safety officials have understood the problem for months, but only began taking enforcement action in September. Even then, firm steps were delayed at the behest of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, after coal industry lobbyists complained about the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training's plans.
"There was concern about how it was being handled and who was handling it," said Chris Hamilton, a vice president for the West Virginia Coal Association.
The controversy creates a cloud around one of the major reforms put in place by then-Gov. Joe Manchin and by Congress following the Sago Mine Disaster and the Aracoma Mine fire in 2006. Twelve miners died at Sago and two at Aracoma before rescuers could reach them deep underground.
At Manchin's urging, lawmakers mandated that all West Virginia coal miners have access to an emergency shelter that could provide them fresh air, food and water in the event of a fire or explosion. Congress followed up with similar federal requirements for mines nationwide. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration had the authority to require rescue chambers since 1969, but did so only after a more specific congressional mandate following the 2006 disasters.
The latest controversy began in January, when state inspectors were alerted to an incident involving an inflatable shelter made by the A.L. Lee Corp. in use at an unidentified mine in West Virginia. Company officials had found the door of the unit open and several five-gallon drinking water containers tossed outside of the unit. State officials were told the company believed it was an act of vandalism.
State investigators, though, quickly determined that it was a mechanical failure on compressed oxygen tanks used to inflate the shelter.
"It was determined that a brass fitting attaching one of the oxygen cylinders had failed, allowing for a rapid release of the oxygen into the interior of the shelter," said a Jan. 13 state report. "The additional volume released exerted sufficient pressure to force the access door open and expel some of the contents stored near the door."
At the time, state officials said that "no immediate danger is posed by the identified issue" and that no actions by mine operators were necessary. State officials did ask shelter manufacturers to provide them with "an evaluation of the attributes of their equipment that would prevent such an occurrence" or action plans for inspections and potential corrective actions.
A week later, on Jan. 20, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration issued an alert to the mining community, warning of what it called a "catastrophic failure" of a brass fitting on the shelter's oxygen cylinders.
MSHA officials warned that the brass fittings did not meet industry guidelines. They measured 40 percent thinner and 8 percent shorter than recommended by the Compressed Gas Association, according to the MSHA alert. The alert also suggested that leak-detection fluids containing ammonia could have damaged the fittings during routine checks of the units.
Federal regulators recommended -- but did not order -- examinations of all underground mine rescue shelters to ensure that fittings met industry guidelines and were not damaged.
A week after the MSHA alert, a lab contracted by A.L. Lee Corp concluded the fittings on the shelter in question were corroded, probably because of "sulfur dioxide gas in a moist coal-mine environment."
Leonard Urtso, president of A.L. Lee, said his company worked quickly to examine all 133 of its company's inflatable units in use in coal mines in West Virginia. The company found only one other unit on which fittings had "developed some corrosion." In an interview, Urtso downplayed any potential for the fittings to cause a problem for miners.
"Just because there is a crack doesn't mean there's going to be a catastrophic event," Urtso said. "It just means there's going to be a leak."
Urtso said the units are routinely checked by mine operators and examined every six months by his company, reducing the chances of a problem. "Your chances of hitting the lottery are a lot better than that happening," he said.