Two years ago, the Bush administration rejected a proposal to give coal miners text-messaging devices that could warn them of underground fires and explosions.
If the Sago Mine had had these devices, 13 miners trapped underground could have been told it was safe for them to walk out after a Jan. 2 explosion.
If workers at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine three weeks later had had text-messaging devices, they could have been warned sooner of a dangerous fire that killed two workers.
Last week, Gov. Joe Manchin pushed through legislation to require these devices in West Virginia's 150 underground coal mines.
Manchin and West Virginia's congressional delegation have asked President Bush to implement a similar mandate nationwide. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has asked for public comments on what kinds of new communications equipment would improve mine rescue efforts.
But MSHA already could have acted to accept text-messaging proposals that labor and industry officials made after a major mine disaster in Alabama.
The nation's 42,000 underground coal miners already could have communication devices to help them escape potentially deadly mine accidents, according to a review of public records and interviews with mine safety experts.
U.S. coal companies have known about the devices — called Personal Emergency Devices, or PEDs — since at least the late 1980s. But without an industry-wide mandate, few operators have installed the systems in their mines. Only 19 of about 800 underground U.S. mines use PEDs, according to MSHA records.
"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 a subcommittee hearing last week in Washington.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said the state's delegation is drafting nationwide legislation that would mirror parts of Manchin's bill.
"I'm amazed at the technology that we have that we're not using," Byrd said in an interview. "The state of West Virginia is taking aggressive steps at its level, but these steps are only a beginning."
A 'success story'
A Personal Emergency Device works kind of like a Blackberry or the text-messaging feature of your cell phone. But PEDs are built to withstand the harsh environment inside coal mines, and to not spark and cause fires or explosions. Also, PEDs provide only one-way communication. Miners can receive messages, but cannot reply.
Generally, the PED paging system consists of a transmitter that uses ultra-low frequency electromagnetic fields to send communications from the surface through hundreds of feet of rock and earth.
Individual miners carry PED units integrated into the belt-mounted battery packs they carry underground to power their cap lamps. The cap lamp flashes when a message is received from a personal computer on the surface. The miner reads a text message on a liquid-crystal display on top of his belt-mounted battery pack.
Almost 20 years ago, a company called Mine Site Technologies developed the system in Australia.
The company came up with the devices after the deaths of 12 miners in a July 1986 explosion at the Moura No. 4 underground mine in Queensland.
For a mine the size of Sago, it would cost about $100,000 to install a PED system and give each miner a pager, former MSHA chief Davitt McAteer, now Manchin's mine safety adviser, told lawmakers during last week's Senate hearing.
In the United States, PEDs received widespread attention after a November 1998 fire at the Willow Creek Mine in Carbon County, Utah.
About a year later, longtime MSHA official Marvin Nichols touted the use of PEDs at Willow Creek during a September 1999 speech to an international mine safety conference in Winnipeg, Canada. Nichols called the incident a "success story."
When four miners from a longwall section reported a fire, mine management activated the PED system, Nichols said.
"The entire work force left the mine safely within about 45 minutes," Nichols said, according to a transcript of his speech.
"This was a serious fire," Nichols said. "[But] not one person suffered injury during the emergency or during the recovery of the mine. Part of the credit for that achievement almost certainly belongs to this Personal Emergency Device."
Nichols said the PED "seems to be a very promising example of new technology that can help to protect miners." But he added, "This is not required by U.S. mining law. The mine operator had installed this system voluntarily."
The following year, in July 2000, there was another fire at the Willow Creek Mine, now operated by RAG American Coal Company Inc.
Again, the PED system helped all the miners evacuate safely.
"The use of the PED system was instrumental in alerting miners underground of the need to evacuate," MSHA said in its final report on the second Willow Creek fire.
"Miners working in active and remote areas of the mine at the time of the explosion were notified through the use of the PED," said the report. "These miners all safely exited the mine."
Ray McKinney, then MSHA's district manager in Norton, Va., and now the agency's top coal mine safety official, was the lead author of the Willow Creek report.
To see transcripts of the Sago mine interviews, please visit http://www.wvgazette.com/static/sago/