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Extra oxygen sources ordered

Under growing pressure to make the nation’s coal mines safer, the Bush administration is dusting off a Clinton-era proposal to require additional emergency oxygen supplies in underground mines.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration announced Tuesday that it plans to implement the requirement as an emergency rule that takes effect immediately.

The emergency rule would also require lifelines to guide miners out of mines, immediate notification to MSHA of accidents, and additional emergency training for miners, MSHA said.

“This emergency rulemaking will require the use of proven technologies and techniques to help miners evacuate quickly and safely after a mine accident,” said acting MSHA chief David G. Dye.

Since passage of the 1977 mine safety act, MSHA has published emergency rules only twice: once in 1987 to require better training on the use of emergency oxygen supplies, and again in 2002 to rewrite mine evacuation rules.

A copy of the rule was not yet available, and it was not clear Tuesday when it would be published in the Federal Register. Publication would formally put the requirements in effect.

But based on an MSHA news release, the rule will closely follow a Clinton administration proposal for additional oxygen devices that was dropped by MSHA less than a year after President Bush took office.

The oxygen devices are called Self-Contained Self Rescue devices, or SCSRs.

Dye announced this emergency rule as several media outlets were preparing detailed articles about the Bush administration’s abandonment of the previous SCSR proposal.

Currently, MSHA requires mine operators to provide each miner with one SCSR capable of providing one hour’s oxygen supply. Under MSHA rules, miners can wear the SCSRs or they can be stored near work areas underground.

In West Virginia, Gov. Joe Manchin has already pushed through a new law to require more oxygen supplies at various locations throughout underground mines.

And in Washington, West Virginia’s congressional delegation has introduced legislation to force MSHA to do the same.

In its Tuesday news release, MSHA said that the emergency rule “would require mine operators to maintain additional SCSRs for each miner underground in a storage area and would require that they be readily accessible for miners in the event of an emergency.”

Over the last five weeks, mine safety has jumped to the forefront following the deaths of 12 miners in a Jan. 2 explosion at the Sago Mine in Upshur County.

Pressure continued to mount when two more miners died in a Jan. 19 fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County.

In both cases, mine safety experts have said that the workers would have had a better chance to escape alive if they had additional oxygen and other improved rescue gear.

Last week, the deaths of two miners in separate accidents in Boone County pushed West Virginia’s coal industry fatality count to 16 so far this year — the most in any year since 1995.

Historically, mine fires and explosions have been a major cause of deaths in the nation’s coal mines. Miners who are not killed by initial blasts or spreading flames face the danger of noxious gases or a lack of oxygen.

Between 1950 and 1969, about one-fifth of the miners killed on the job died from asphyxiation from smoke, carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, according to a 1970 study by the National Academy of Engineering.

In response to such deaths, Congress required emergency oxygen supplies when it wrote the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. Under the law, coal operators must provide each miner with a “self-rescue device” that provides oxygen for “one hour or longer.”

Since the law was written, the particulars of that requirement have caused controversy.

At first, companies provided miners with filter-type self-rescuers. But those didn’t work very well. They only filtered out carbon monoxide, and did not protect against smoke, carbon dioxide or other toxic gases. Also, the filter rescuers produced air that was too hot to inhale, so miners spit them out.

Then, in the late 1970s, MSHA began working to require a new kind of rescuer that would contain its own oxygen supply or create oxygen from a chemical reaction — the SCSRs.

Industry officials and some miners did not like the new devices. They weighed 8.5 pounds, three times heavier than the old filter devices. Miners did not like to wear them. Coal operators wanted to store them near mine work areas, rather than having miners carry them on their belts.

Over objections from some mine safety groups, MSHA delayed for an additional year, until June 1981, the two-year period for mine operators to phase in the new SCSRs.

Also, MSHA weakened its rules to allow companies to obtain mine-specific approval to store single SCSRs — one for each miner — farther from the work area.

Later, an industry-government task force developed another SCSR that weighed 5.7 pounds.

Questions continued after SCSRs were installed in the mines, especially after a December 1984 fire that killed 27 miners at the Wilberg Mine in Orangeville, Utah.

In its investigation of the Wilberg fire, MSHA found that the victims were not adequately trained to use their rescue devices. Agency officials issued an emergency rule in June 1987 to require better training.

But the Wilberg fire also raised questions about the location of rescue device storage stations.

MSHA found that only five of the 54 SCSRs stored near the miners at Wilberg could be reached. The others were too close to areas affected by fire and heavy smoke, MSHA said in its report on the disaster.

So in 1992, then-MSHA chief Davitt McAteer began the process of reforming the agency’s SCSR rules.

Over the next few years, MSHA held several industry-wide seminars and formed a task force to come up with consensus ways to improve SCSR rules.

In mid-1999, MSHA announced in the Federal Register that it was working on a proposed rule that would, among other things, require additional SCSRs.

MSHA asked for public comment on the issue.

“Where escape will take longer than 1 hour, should the standard for coal mines be revised to require caches of an adequate number of self-rescuer devices to allow all miners to escape to the surface or a safe location?” MSHA asked.

MSHA officials drafted a rule, but it was never formally proposed.

After Bush took office in January 2001, he appointed Dave D. Lauriski, a longtime industry executive and one-time safety officer for the company that owned the Wilberg Mine, to run MSHA.

On Dec. 3, 2001, Lauriski halted all work on the SCSR rules, according to an announcement in MSHA’s regulatory agenda.

“MSHA is withdrawing this entry from the agenda in light of resource constraints and changing safety and health regulatory priorities,” MSHA said.

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


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