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MSHA chief: 'I'm not happy about where we're at'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal regulators need to do more to push coal-mine operators to install new communications and tracking gear that could help miners escape a fire or explosion, the chief of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said Thursday.

"I'm not happy about where we're at," said Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for mine safety and health. "I thought this thing was solved before I became assistant secretary."

Main discussed the issue in a telephone interview Thursday, following a Sunday Gazette-Mail article revealing that fewer than one in 10 underground mines across the country has met the requirements of a 2006 law that required more advanced communications and tracking equipment.

The article, based on MSHA data, showed that only 34 out of 415 active underground mines across the United States comply with the MINER Act, passed after a series of mine disasters that killed 19 miners in West Virginia and Kentucky in 2006.

"There is an obligation on the part of the mine operators to get this stuff in," said Main, a former safety director for the United Mine Workers union.

However, Main said he plans no changes -- at least not right now -- to a policy issued in the final days of the Bush administration that gave the coal industry a loophole to avoid installing new wireless communications and miner-tracking systems in underground mines.

Main said he's learned since taking over MSHA that "truly wireless" communications that will work in all underground mines doesn't yet exist and, therefore, can't be required of the mining industry.

"That two-way wireless just doesn't exist," Main said. "I don't know what other decisions could be made."

Still, Main said, the industry needs to move more quickly to develop truly wireless systems and to install the best alternatives until those systems are available.

Main said he plans to "lean on" manufacturers and vendors to speed up the production and delivery of new systems and that MSHA would not look the other way if operators aren't installing technology as it becomes available.

In West Virginia, only 23 out of 144 underground mines meet current MSHA requirements for new communications and tracking equipment. State officials point out that almost all mines meet West Virginia's separate standard.

However, Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's coal administrator, said the difference between the two requirements is important. MSHA mandates communications and tracking coverage in working sections of mines -- the areas closest to the active mining face -- whereas West Virginia's rules do not.

Stricklin said MSHA's experience with the Sago and Darby mine disasters convinced the agency that having communications and tracking in those areas is crucial.

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


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