updated 1/31/2008 7:49:25 PM ET 2008-02-01T00:49:25

Federal mine-safety regulators on Thursday said they approved the first wireless-tracking system to locate miners trapped underground.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said the technology was developed by Liberty Lake, Wash.-based Venture Design Services Inc., a subsidiary of Singapore-based Venture Corp. Ltd.

"Since the Sago Mine disaster, MSHA has received dozens of proposals from manufacturers and distributors of emergency communication and tracking systems," Richard Stickler, acting assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said in a press release. The Venture Design system allows mine operators to track miners underground before and after an emergency event, he said.

After deadly mine explosions in 2006, Congress passed legislation that year requiring that mine operators adopt wireless communications and electronic tracking systems by June 2009.

The wireless requirement was part of comprehensive safety legislation to improve conditions for the nation's 43,000 underground coal miners. In a January 2006 explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia, 12 men died from carbon monoxide poisoning. In May of that year, five men died in an underground explosion at the Kentucky Darby mine.

In August 2007, nine people died in two cave-ins at the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah.

Since 2006, the agency issued 36 new or revised approvals for communications and tracking systems and is examining 41 more, including several applications for other wireless systems, an MHSA spokesman said.

During emergencies, mine operators are required to shut down power, a cautionary move that also cuts off other mining-tracking systems. Dave Chirdon, MSHA's supervisor of the electrical safety division, said Venture's system resorts to battery power for up to 48 hours and more accurately tracks miners than other systems.

The Big Branch mine in Naugatuck, W.V., has been using Venture Design's MineTracer Miner Location Monitoring System since May, said Jim Barrett, the product's research and development manager.

The complex system, which Barrett described as a cell phone network "blanketing a city that is shrunk down and installed underground," is designed to work during emergencies, especially in hazardous gas environments.

The installation cost is about $35,000 per mile, or $100,000 to $1 million depending on the size of a mine, he estimated.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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