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The Charleston Gazette: Mine safety

IT HAS been two months since the Sago explosion caused the deaths of 12 underground miners, and a month since subsequent coal deaths.

Gov. Joe Manchin became a national hero by sitting with grieving families, then rushing back to Charleston and to Washington to push for mine safety improvements. Lawmakers responded. West Virginia now requires additional oxygen supplies, wireless communications and miner tracking devices in deep mines. Airtight survival chambers were added as an option.

But already, the sense of urgency seems to be fading.

Manchin has given mine owners more time to install the rescue gear and allowed them to delay submitting plans for how they will install wireless communications and miner tracking systems. The governor will appoint a labor-industry task force to work out concerns about the technology. That report is due in 90 days, and some time after that, Acting Mine Safety Director James M. Dean is to start requiring the devices. Months will pass before improvements are in place.

The attitude at the federal level is also one of delay. A U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration rule requiring longer-lasting oxygen supplies for miners is being held up while the White House continues to review it. Thursday’s disclosure by Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr. about this stall was read during a U.S. Senate hearing by Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

Everyone is for mine safety. Nobody can oppose it openly. But some industry sources, worried about potential cost, reportedly are casting doubt on the urgent reforms. Whispered questions about equipment “effectiveness” have generated enough uncertainty to slow the mandated improvements. Even Dean has joined the chorus, suggesting that his own boss’s reforms may not work.

But there is plenty of evidence that these improvements do work. Australian mines have been using wireless communications for 20 years. In the United States, such devices were credited with saving lives during two mine fires in Utah in 1998 and 2000. Consol Energy Inc. and Peabody Energy already use the walkie-talkies at some of their West Virginia sites.

“I’ve seen it all before,” Sen. Byrd said in a Jan. 25 speech. “First, the disaster, then the weeping and then the outrage. But in a few weeks, when the outrage is gone, when the ink on the editorials dries, everything returns to business as usual.”

It is a familiar strategy. Dally long enough for the public’s attention to be captured by something else and the urgency will go away. That’s exactly what happened to the mandate for rescue chambers in the 1969 federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.

That law was passed after 78 miners died in the Farmington tragedy. The law gave federal officials authority to prescribe such lifesaving chambers. They were studied. They were found to be good alternatives to other safety measures. But they were never required. If they had been, most of the Sago miners might have survived.

Improvements the Legislature mandated will cost money. It’s more equipment for companies to buy, maintain and train employees to use. It’s more for miners to carry and keep track of. It’s bound to slow production, especially at first. There’s also no doubt that devices can fail sometimes.

But no sensible West Virginian can be convinced that more oxygen is a bad idea. Communication devices that work even intermittently are better than none. The governor’s mine safety chief doesn’t need to help the industry’s whisper campaign to discredit technology that might save a life.

Every day that West Virginia waits on these improvements is another day that the state is not doing all that it can to protect miners.


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