Learning from Jim Walter
In September 2001, 13 miners died in a series of explosions at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine outside Tuscaloosa, Ala.
After an investigation, MSHA blamed most of the deaths on "poor emergency management."
The first explosion injured four miners, one seriously, and damaged the mine's ventilation controls. Most of the miners underground knew there was an emergency, but didn't know about the explosion or the dangers of a secondary blast. So, they traveled toward the affected section of the mine to help their co-workers. A bigger explosion, fueled by methane and coal dust, then killed 12 miners.
After the Jim Walter disaster, then-MSHA chief Dave Lauriski moved quickly to rewrite the agency's mine emergency rules.
Lauriski issued an emergency rule that focused on requiring coal companies to designate one mine official to take charge during fires, explosions or floods. Under Lauriski's rule, that person would assess the situation, and order an evacuation if miners faced an imminent danger.
"We are acting to strengthen emergency preparedness immediately, throughout the underground coal mining industry," Lauriski said in a news release.
Australian PED-maker Mine Site Technologies wrote to MSHA to encourage the agency to amend the rule to require its devices in U.S. mines.
"The need for such a device was identified by the U.S. coal industry in the mid-1980s, where the former U.S. Bureau of Mines undertook some development work on a 'through-the-earth' fire warning device," wrote Dennis Kent, one of Mine Site Technologies' engineers.
"Where as the USBM system was never commercialized, PED was; and to date it has been installed in 106 mines, having been used in coal mines in Australia since 1990 and the U.S. since 1995," Kent wrote.
Kent added that the devices were put into all Australian mines, "not through mandatory legislation, but through choice, which would not have occurred if there wasn't tangible safety and cost benefits associated with the installation of PED."
At one of MSHA's public hearings on the rule, officials from RAG American Coal showed up to talk about the use of PEDs at the Willow Creek fires.
"The PED system has been a major improvement of mine communications," Lincoln Derrick of RAG's Twentymile Coal Co. said during a February 2003 hearing in Grand Junction, Colo.
MSHA officials at the hearing asked Derrick to explain more about the PED system, and comment on its reliability.
"The system is used extensively," Derrick told the MSHA officials. "The nice thing about the PED system is it is not just an emergency device that we see in too many disasters.
"Sometimes units that aren't used on a regular basis fail," he said. "It is a regular communication tool. So you are testing it dozens of times every shift."
Derrick added, "I don't believe we would ever have any negative comment about whether it was worth the installation. It has been extremely reliable."
In written comments, RAG's Charles Burggraf noted that MSHA's rule requires mine management to have "ready access" to a communications system, but does not spell out what that means.
"Will a mine pager telephone system be adequate? Will two means of communication be necessary? Will two-way communication be necessary?" Burggraf wrote in a January 2003 letter to MSHA.
New Mexico-based San Juan Coal Co. sent a letter to MSHA to advocate the use of PEDs.
The United Mine Workers union reminded MSHA that the UMW's report on the Jim Walter disaster recommended a requirement for improved communications devices.
"The PED Emergency Communication System has the ability to send emergency instruction simultaneously to all personnel and vehicles in fifteen seconds," the UMW said in that report. "Various mines in the United States utilize this system. It has been used to contact miners in remote areas where phones are not located and to withdraw miners during emergencies.
"The PED signal will propagate through several hundreds of meters of rock strata and can be received at any location throughout the mine with a loop antenna on the surface," the UMW report said.
On Sept. 8, 2003, MSHA issued the final version of its rewrite of mine emergency rules. The agency declined to require PED systems in underground mines.
At the time, Marvin Nichols — who had so lavishly praised the PED system in a 1999 speech — was director of MSHA's Office of Standards, Regulations and Variances, the agency branch in charge of the rule changes.
"MSHA has not made the PED system a requirement of the final rule," the agency said in a Federal Register notice. MSHA believes that the PED system is generally effective and encourages its use. However, since technology is constantly changing, newer systems that may be as, or more, effective than the PED may be developed."
In a news release that same day, Lauriski said the rule change "provides one more tool to help send more miners home safe at the end of every working day."
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/