Many of the safety measures state legislatures and Congress rushed to adopt to protect the 46,000 people working in the nation’s underground coal mines after the Jan. 2. Sago Mine explosion have yet to take effect.
There are still no rescue chambers or wireless tracking and communications equipment in the country’s 606 underground coal mines, and it’s unlikely there will be until federal requirements kick in more than two years from now. Hundreds of emergency air packs that are to be stored underground — though currently required by law — are on backorder and will take months to deliver.
“You can’t walk over and flip the switch and change it all in a year,” said James Dean, who spent eight months as West Virginia’s mine safety chief following the Sago Mine explosion. “The negative is, it’s not happening fast enough.”
Experts from International Coal Group Inc., which owns the Sago mine, and state investigators concluded an unusually powerful lightning strike somehow ignited methane gas and sparked the explosion. However, some family members of miners who died at Sago say the lightning theory is just a way for coal companies to blame an act of God and reduce liability.
The explosion killed 12 men. Only one member of the trapped crew — Randal McCloy Jr. — was rescued after more than 40 hours underground.
Over the next 12 months, 35 more American coal miners died on the job, including seven lost in two more high-profile accidents. As the death toll grew toward the highest total since 1995, lawmakers decided to act.
The president signed the broadest federal safety law in nearly three decades, the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, in June. Lawmakers from West Virginia, Kentucky and other coal mining states acted as well.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated the new federal legislation will cost the industry $128 million — but that figure doesn’t include some costs, such as lost production when miners are training.
Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy Co., which had a fire in one of its coal mines that killed two miners just weeks after the Sago tragedy, says many of the changes are misguided.
“A lot of politicians are simply trying to gain favor and a lot of the others involved simply don’t understand the issues,” he says. “I don’t think that what we’re doing is nearly as helpful as it could and should be.”
Blankenship is disappointed that regulators required heavy expenditures on air packs using 20-year-old technology rather than spending for a new generation of breathing gear, a view shared by officials with Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy Inc. and St. Louis-based Peabody Energy.
In a rare instance of agreement, United Mine Worker officials say the wave of legislation has done little.
“There’s a lot of good language in the MINER Act,” said UMW health and safety director Dennis O’Dell. “Those things under the MINER Act haven’t really been implemented yet.”
Richard Stickler, the director of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), believes current measures make mines safer.
The new federal law requires miners to have at least a two-hour supply of air with them while they work — an increase from a one-hour standard. And it requires mines to store extra air packs underground, as well as provide more frequent and extensive training to miners on their use. It also mandates more highly trained mine rescue teams, high-tech communications and tracking devices and emergency shelters to help trapped miners survive.
Mine operators have met the air pack requirement by ordering more of the devices, but many have yet to reach the mines: purchase orders are considered proof of compliance. The two manufacturers that dominate the industry report yearlong backlogs.
Regulators have made other improvements. For instance, MSHA approved a proximity detector capable of shutting down a continuous mining machine that gets close enough to crush a miner. The device is not mandated and it is unclear if its use is widespread.
Yet much remains undone.
Investigators have concluded the Sago explosion unleashed explosive forces as high as 95 pounds per square inch (psi) from an abandoned and sealed area of the mine. That unprecedented pressure obliterated the foam block seals, which were designed to the old federal standard of 20 psi.
MSHA has since upped the standard to 50 psi, but no one knows how to build seals that strong, or how to strengthen thousands of existing seals built to the old standard.
Regardless, Stickler says rules requiring even-stronger seals are on MSHA’s to-do list for 2007.
Despite the theory that lightning touched off the explosion, Stickler says MSHA won’t know how to prevent another occurrence until the investigators give details of how the explosion occurred.
Other safety improvements seem to be stalling altogether.
West Virginia’s August deadline for mines to submit plans for high-tech wireless communications has come and gone.
“I haven’t heard anything different from six months ago,” said Dale Birchfield, a member of the state Mine Safety Technology Task Force. That’s when developers of a promising system reported their gear penetrates a relatively meager 300 feet of earth.
MSHA hasn’t found a “system that will really work the way we envision it — that would provide communication through the earth without antennas underground that would be destroyed by a fire or explosion,” Stickler said.
While there were a number of high-profile mining tragedies in 2006, most of the year’s 35 fatalities involved roof falls and heavy equipment mishaps.
“We need to take care of the things that we know,” O’Dell said, citing a need for better roof supports, stronger ventilation fans, water systems to control coal dust and installation of proximity detectors.
Though Congress appropriated another $10 million for safety research in 2006, lobbyist Watzman said more federal funding is required.
“When you talk about covering breathing technology and refuge chambers and seals and tracking technology and communications, $10 million doesn’t go very far,” Watzman said.