The chances of todayís coal miners surviving a mine emergency such as the Sago explosion remain close to the 1969-1970 level when I started my mining career.
When I began working as a miner at Riverton Coal Co. along Paint Creek, we communicated to the surface with hand-wired, battery-operated telephones from a few fixed locations in the mines, mostly from working sections. We wore what was called a W65 self-rescuer on our belt and we ventilated or directed air currents with burlap brattice cloth, and shortly thereafter, with a plastic or vinyl-lined curtain. We were provided with this same material in addition to wooden boards and cinderblocks, if available, for a barricade.
The W65 self-rescuer is a chemical-based respirator that merely changes carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide. It does not provide oxygen and lasts for approximately 60 minutes. This piece of equipment is basically unchanged and is the same respirator made available to coal miners for the last 50 years or so.
Brattice curtain (or line curtain) is a good ventilation control for directing airflow, but a ridiculously inadequate material with which to barricade. It is impossible to seal an area or to keep harmful gases out. The men at Sago did what they were trained to do. They used the material that was provided to them. However, barricading with brattice curtain would be like having a shower curtain around a shower stall against deadly gases. CEO Ben Hatfield called it ďa flimsy curtain.Ē
In the mid-1980s, a Self-Contained Self-Rescuer (SCRS) breathing apparatus was provided to miners and had to be worn or stored in locations near miners while underground. The pitiful thing about it is that once you don the SCSR unit and use up the oxygen (about an hourís worth), you canít change cylinders and move on. You have to remove your hat and light, hold your breath, remove the unit by loosening straps, take off the nose clip, remove your mouthpiece, and then don a new unit in the dark, if itís available. We can fuel a jet in flight, but coal miners canít simply change a cylinder to sustain life.
The mine communication system is almost the same as it was in the 1960s. Surveillance personnel can ďbugĒ people and objects, veterinarians can place chips in animals and car manufacturers can install Global Positioning Systems to enable anyone to be tracked anyplace, but they canít put tracking devices on mine lamps or other gear to better locate miners.
They can talk with people on the moon or the ocean floor, and intercept messages from the caves of Afghanistan, but not with coal miners in tunnels 260 feet below the earthís surface.
Concerning barricades, does anyone think that coal miners can erect barricades out of block, probably in bad air with limited amounts of oxygen? Why can we put air bags in the dash of vehicles, or on wreckers to lift vehicles and free victims, or even to lift vessels from an ocean floor ó but coal miners canít have something as simple as an air bag or foam forms that would almost instantly expand to conform to the uneven top, sides and bottom of a mine tunnel? Most barricades probably would be erected at or near the work faces and every working section of every mine should have some type of quick barricades.
Will President Bush or the Republican Party increase penalties on violations fourfold? They donít do much to penalize companies for violations the inspectors write now. But if they had had their way, we wouldnít even have the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Knowing that it will be months before state and federal agencies complete their investigation, it is past time for miners to participate in mine emergency rescue drills. Annual eight-hour refresher courses on the surface are required and should be. But also, on the job, simulated fires or explosions underground should be a part of every minerís annual retraining. We were able to do this at our mine using a nontoxic Hollywood-type smoke machine and posterboards to simulate roof falls, missing ventilation controls, victims, etc. It was quite an experience for some of our miners and should be part of the annual retraining for all miners.
Gov. Joe Manchin recently noted that the Farmington mine disaster in 1968 sparked major reforms in federal mine safety regulations. That was almost 40 years ago. Much is still needed. Letís not wait for yet another disaster.
We know coal companies have spent millions of dollars in the last decade alone to modernize their face equipment, belt systems and other equipment geared toward production, but what have they spent to upgrade communication and our ability to evacuate, barricade and rescue miners? Why not a little more caring and safety?
Nuckols, of Ansted, is a disabled coal miner who worked as a safety representative for 20 years and for a short time as a mine rescuer in the 1980s.