Over the past few years, that national team has responded to numerous mine emergencies, including the successful rescue of nine miners trapped in the flooded Quecreek Mine near Somerset, Pa., in July 2002.
Consol sent at least six teams to assist with the Sago Mine rescue effort. A crew from its Robinson Run Mine was the first into the mine. Tom Hoffman, a spokesman for Consol, said many teams are needed when a long rescue operation appears in the cards.
"Our experience with this kind of situation shows that, after about 24 hours, people are going to get tired," Hoffman said.
Company-wide, Consol has 10 rescue teams that are considered among the best in the country.
"As a company that operates 10 big underground mines, it is prudent of us to maintain this capacity," Hoffman said.
Nationwide, there are about 150 coal mine rescue teams listed in a 2004 MSHA database.
In West Virginia, there are 35 teams listed in that database. The state looks pretty good compared to other coal states.
Nationally, there are about four underground mines for every mine rescue team. West Virginia reported 4.34 mines per rescue team, according to the MSHA data. Kentucky reported 12 mines for every team, and Virginia reported 11 mines for every team.
'Therein lies the quandary'
McAteer was a second-year law student at West Virginia University when he went to work for famed consumer advocate Ralph Nader in 1969 to crusade for mine safety improvements. Twenty years later, after a long career as a mine safety lawyer and activist, McAteer became MSHA chief after Democrat Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992.
Among other reform efforts at MSHA, McAteer tried to upgrade the agency's mine rescue rules and program.
In January 1995, McAteer sponsored a two-day conference at MSHA's training academy outside Beckley to discuss the issue. About 280 industry officials, labor representatives, mine rescue team members, government officials and educators attended.
Joseph Lamonica, a safety representative for the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, summed up their feelings: "The good news is that the record will show that the number of life-threatening injuries is diminishing. The bad news is that the number of people who have mine-emergency experience is also diminishing, and therein lies the quandary."
In a 52-page report, the conference attendees recommended a number of changes to MSHA's 15-year-old rescue team rules:
Finally, the conference report asked that MSHA form a group to continue to work to implement the recommendations.
McAteer did so three years later. In 1998, MSHA created the Mine Rescue Team Initiative committee.
Joe Pavlovich, a longtime MSHA district manager in Kentucky, was appointed by McAteer to lead the panel. Pavlovich, now retired, said the major problem was that MSHA's rule for mine rescue teams was too proscriptive.
Consider the two-team-per-mine rule, he said.
"Say I have two mines close together," Pavlovich said. "The law says I have to have two teams, and I can borrow two teams for each of them from two hours away. But, if I want to station one team at each of my mines, that doesn't comply. That just doesn't make sense."
Contract teams are a problem, too, Pavlovich said. They don't get inspected like the company on-site teams do. That means they might not be prepared or have the right equipment. It also means that companies can avoid any potential citations from such inspections by just contracting out, rather than having their own team.
Pavlovich and his committee set about reworking the MSHA rule.
MSHA first included the rescue-team rule rewrite in its formal regulatory agenda in 1999.
The agency worked on the proposal, talking to industry and labor representatives and other parties, for several years.
"We hope to increase the number of mine rescue teams available to assist miners in life-threatening emergencies," MSHA said in one of its agendas.
Coming up with a proposal all sides would like was difficult for Pavlovich.
UMW officials thought the MSHA draft would give industry too much of what it wanted in the way of more flexible rules. Industry officials were upset the agency would not go along with its demand that companies funding rescue teams be given a break on citations and fines for unrelated safety problems.
Still, in May 2002, MSHA announced that it planned to publish a draft rule in the Federal Register sometime that September.
Just before that May announcement, though, the Bush administration's new MSHA chief, Dave Lauriski, called a public meeting on mine rescue rules for March.
At that meeting, several industry and labor officials expressed concern that they were just attending more meetings that would result in no changes. The Bituminous Coal Operators' Lamonica said his group was concerned that its earlier comments "sort of fell on deaf ears."
Jim Vicini, safety director for an Arch Coal subsidiary, Laurel Mountain Processing, said he attended a previous MSHA meeting in 1995 and offered his suggestions.
"Seven years later, teams have continued to decline, and little, if anything, has been done to help the situation," Vicini said.
Nine months later, Lauriski dropped the mine rescue rulemaking from MSHA's agenda.
"MSHA is withdrawing this item and plans to evaluate non-regulatory alternatives," MSHA said in a Dec. 9, 2002, Federal Register notice.
The mine rescue rule was among more than a dozen safety-rule improvements MSHA quietly halted work on, as part of a plan to better "focus" its rulemaking efforts.
Pavlovich, along with most labor and industry officials, believes changes in MSHA's mine rescue team program would advance miner safety. Some sort of action already should have been taken, he said.
"I hate to think what would happen," Pavlovich said last week. "With this country and the resources we have and this industry and the resources we have, and we would have to say, 'We couldn't get over there.' How would we face the families?"
Staff writer Scott Finn contributed to this report.
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.
To see transcripts of the Sago mine interviews, please visit http://www.wvgazette.com/static/sago/