Celeste Monforton, a former MSHA staffer who teaches public health and workplace safety at George Washington University, recalled that after the Sago Mine disaster in 2006 regulators began looking at previous accident reports and NIOSH research that clearly showed lightning strikes and weak mine seals could combine to create a major disaster.
And in the case of the intake airway explosions, Monforton noted, state and federal regulators wrote reports of each incident, but apparently never connected the dots and updated their safety standards.
"It sends these shivers down my spine," Monforton said as she read Dubaniewicz's papers last week. "It's very disturbing."
Several coal industry officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Davitt McAteer, a longtime mine safety advocate who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration, said the need for explosion-proof equipment only tells part of the story.
McAteer said proper design and operation of underground mine ventilation systems should keep explosive gases and coal dust out of intake airways. In each of the instances cited by Dubaniewicz, problems started when mine operators did not design good ventilation systems or violated their ventilation plans, allowing methane or coal dust to build up in those intake tunnels.
At Scotia, for example, the company had redirected fresh air meant for the area where the first explosion occurred into other parts of the mine. Federal investigators cited the company for "inadequate ventilation" and for not conducting pre-shift methane checks of the area where the ignition occurred.
"We ought to only have permissible equipment in the intakes, but the rest of the story is the negligence of the operators and the fact that proper ventilation could have prevented these," McAteer said. "But because this is an industry that neglects redundant safety systems, we need to add more redundancies."
Dubaniewicz began his research while reading the MSHA report on the series of explosions in September 2001 that killed 13 miners at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine in Brookwood, Ala.
The initial explosion, which seriously injured one miner, was later traced to arcing of a battery charging system that was damaged by a roof fall. The second blast, which claimed the lives of 12 miners headed to rescue their injured co-worker, was linked to a traffic light system for underground vehicles.
"I was kind of surprised to see that the ignition locations for both explosions were in the intakes," Dubaniewicz said.
After its own investigation of the Brookwood disaster, the United Mine Workers union recommended tougher rules for insulation of electrical wiring and for "increased safety" requirements for some installations, such as battery charging stations.
"Obviously, you cannot take equipment out of the intake airways," said Dennis O'Dell, the UMW's safety director. "But there are things that can be done."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.
Here is a list of mine explosions that occurred in intake airways and were blamed on sparks from electrical equipment that was not explosion proof:
Sources: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration