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Planners need an extra year on mine safety

West Virginia coal operators need at least another year to come up with plans to install wireless communications equipment and miner tracking gear, a state task force reported Wednesday.

Operators should be given until July 31, 2007, to submit the plans, according to the report from Gov. Joe Manchin’s Mine Safety Technology Task Force.

Originally, the mine communications plans would have been required three months ago.

But to quell coal industry complaints, Manchin delayed the deadlines and appointed a task force to review available equipment.

The industry-labor task force also supported Manchin’s call for additional emergency breathing devices to be stored in underground mines.

The group recommended some changes in storage plan rules aimed to ease storage at larger longwall mines, and suggested the state require mine operators to submit more detailed information about the oxygen devices they use and the inspection of those devices.

Task force members concluded that the air packs, called Self-Contained Self-Rescuers, should only be expected to last 30 minutes — despite federal ratings that list them as 60-minute emergency breathing supplies.

“Since every mine is different and every miner is unique, it is not surprising that there are deviations from the certified durations of SCSRs when tested in the real-world versus the laboratory,” the task force said.

Various studies indicate that some devices may last just one-quarter of their certified time, the task force said. Some may last longer than the hour they were certified for, the group said.

The task force also lamented the lack of improvements in the devices themselves in recent years.

“The Task Force is troubled that there has been little change in the underlying technology and the design of these units in the last 30 years,” the group said in a 137-page report issued following a 90-day study.

The task force said that many of the breathing device advances discussed in recent months “were rediscoveries of those proposed in the late 1970s by the U.S. Bureau of Mines” but never pursued by private manufacturers. This, the group said, was “indicative of the stagnation in the mine health and safety technology market place.”

Task force members recommended increased funding for federal mine safety research and urged the state to “initiate a program of its own to focus on issues specific to West Virginia mine health and safety problems and encourage local small business to bring innovations forward.”

The task force was formed by Manchin as part of mine rescue reforms pushed by the governor after the Sago Mine disaster in Upshur County, where 12 miners died, and the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine fire in Logan County, where two miners died.

In particular, the group was directed to address coal industry concerns that wireless communications and miner tracking devices promoted by Manchin would not work in all parts of all underground mines.

The task force recommended that the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training hire an expert to continue to review the available technology. Also, it recommended that the task force itself continue to meet once a month to monitor the issue.

Originally, rules written by the administration would have required the new communications equipment plans to be submitted to the state by March 2006. When the task force was formed, that deadline was eliminated, and the task force report on Wednesday recommended a plan submittal deadline of July 31, 2007.

The task force concluded that available technology will work, but that regulations should not focus on mandating specific devices.

“The Task Force has concluded that solutions that focus on ‘devices’ do not provide the best protection for miners, rather, an approach of looking at devices as part of the system in which they function is appropriate,” the report said. “Therefore, recommendations made require a mine-specific evaluation that would determine which of the multiple device options best provide the needed protection and how these additions fit into mine operations, emergency response, and what ongoing training is required by all those likely to use them.”

The task force recommended a variety of new training in the use of SCSRs, including training on switching from one device to another.

James Dean, the state’s acting mine safety director, said he will review the task force report and recommend appropriate changes to the Legislature.

The task force report is available online at www.wvminesafety.org.

Staff writer Ken Ward Jr.’s continuing coverage of mine safety issues is being supported by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. To contact Ward, use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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