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MSHA OKs pager tests

Responding to growing congressional pressure, the Bush administration said Friday it will review 20-year-old paging devices to see if they should be required in all U.S. coal mines.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said it is “evaluating and testing” personal emergency devices, or PEDs. These devices allow miners to receive a text message warning them during a mine fire or explosion.

MSHA said it also will examine a miner “tracker” device that helps rescuers locate workers trapped underground.

The announcement comes two years after MSHA rejected a proposal that it mandate the PED systems in coal mines across the country.

“MSHA is moving quickly and aggressively to evaluate technology that may help save the lives of miners in this nation,” said acting MSHA chief David G. Dye.

The MSHA testing announcement also comes amid growing concern about coal mine safety after a string of accidents that killed 16 West Virginia miners in a little more than a month.

Along with two fatal accidents in Kentucky and one in Utah, the 19 coal miners killed so far is nearly as many as the 22 who died on the job nationwide in 2005.

In West Virginia, Gov. Joe Manchin already pushed through legislation to require PEDs, trackers and additional emergency oxygen supplies in underground mines.

“We’re moving quickly, and we’re going to force everyone else to move quickly,” Manchin said in an interview Friday.

Earlier this week, the West Virginia congressional delegation introduced a bill that would force MSHA to write rules for similar equipment.

Friday afternoon, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said, “It’s about time that MSHA’s leadership got serious about putting 21st-century technology into our coal mines.

“But studying these technologies is no way to save lives,” Byrd said. “These off-the-shelf technologies are available. They work. They save lives. It’s time for MSHA to stop dragging its feet and get to work.”

Also this week, Byrd and the rest of West Virginia’s congressional delegation asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office to investigate the way in which fines are assessed and collected by MSHA.

“We want to know how many fines are negotiated, and how many citations are upheld, at each level of the appeals process,” the delegation said in a letter to the GAO.

Since the Jan. 2 explosion that killed 12 workers at the Sago Mine in Upshur County, MSHA repeatedly has been criticized for not more strictly enforcing mine safety rules.

After Wednesday’s two deaths at a mine in Boone County, MSHA announced that it will sponsor a one-day “Stand Down for Safety” event at mines nationwide Monday.

MSHA officials will visit mines to conduct safety lectures, reminding miners and mine operators of ways to avoid accidents and injuries.

The program is identical to one that then-MSHA chief Dave Lauriski employed after the deaths of 13 miners in a series of explosions at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine outside Tuscaloosa, Ala.

It also is similar to one Manchin launched in West Virginia just hours after the Wednesday accidents.

Last month, MSHA also announced a plan to seek public comment on a variety of changes to mine rescue procedures and equipment. In most cases, topics MSHA seeks comment on were the subject of proposed new rules that were dropped by the agency during the first year of the Bush presidency.

On the issue of PEDs, an Australian company, Mine Site Technologies, invented the devices about 20 years ago, after the deaths of 12 miners in a July 1986 explosion.

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.

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.

In the United States, PEDs received widespread attention after being credited with saving lives during two mine fires at the Willow Creek Mine in Carbon County, Utah, in 1998 and 2000. After those fires, MSHA officials praised the devices. But when MSHA rewrote its emergency evacuation rules in 2003, the agency refused to consider mandating PEDs.

“MSHA believes that the PED system is generally effective and encourages its use,” the agency said at the time. “However, since technology is constantly changing, newer systems that may be as, or more, effective than the PED may be developed.”

Without an industry-wide requirement, PEDs are used only in about 19 U.S. coal mines, according to MSHA data.

As recently as a Jan. 23 congressional hearing, MSHA’s Dye criticized the PED system, saying it is not reliable.

In its news release Friday, MSHA said it is sending agency staff to Australia later this month to research the PED and the tracker device.

MSHA also said Consol Energy Inc. and Peabody Energy have agreed to work with the agency to test the systems.

Vic Svec, a Peabody spokesman, said his company provides PEDs to employees at particular locations in two of its mines.

“We have them in place in a limited number of locations, and we are evaluating the build-out of that,” Svec said Friday.

Consol uses PEDs at two of its large underground mines in West Virginia, said company spokesman Tom Hoffman.

“We think wireless technology is definitely the way to go, but we have yet to conclude that this is a device that works everywhere in every situation,” Hoffman said. “But with government intervention, and research and funding, maybe this can be moved along.”

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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