Federal researchers have concluded that airtight refuge chambers could save trapped miners and merit installation in the nation’s 731 underground coal mines.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health researchers also have determined the current approach – building barricades from fire-resistant or plastic sheets – is not viable for keeping trapped miners alive, according to a report sent to Congress on last week.
The report suggests reversing more than a century of practice in the U.S. coal industry and decades of inaction by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Congress gave federal regulators the authority to require refuge chambers in the federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, but MSHA has never exercised that power.
If shelters are required it would be another in a long string of mine safety changes adopted after 12 men died of carbon monoxide poisoning following the January 2006 explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia. Aiming to improve protection for the nation’s 43,000 underground coal miners, Congress ordered the study in the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, or MINER Act, in 2006. The sweeping safety law was approved after Sago and the Kentucky Darby explosion that left five miners dead, three of whom died of carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation.
Kentucky has the most underground mines in the nation with about 225.
“Refuge alternatives have the potential for saving the lives of mine workers if they are part of a comprehensive escape and rescue plan, and if appropriate training is provided,” NIOSH wrote in its report obtained by The Associated Press.
“These alternatives are practical, survivable, useful,” said Jeff Kohler, NIOSH’s associate director for Mine Safety and Health Research. “Eighteen months ago, when Congress was crafting and writing the MINER Act, in Congress’ mind, there were serious questions.”
Currently, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration requires coal mines to provide 96 hours of breathable air for trapped miners and allows operators to rely on barricades, which has been the approach since the start of the 20th century.
Only West Virginia, the nation’s largest underground coal producer, and Illinois require refuge chambers, though some mining companies, among them Sago owner International Coal Group, are placing the devices in all their mines.
Congress has required MSHA to propose regulations for refuge chambers by June 15. Final regulations are due by Dec. 31.
“We’re in the process of evaluating this report,” MSHA spokesman Matthew Faraci said last week.
The report notes that questions remain about refuge chambers, including whether they should be moveable or constructed as part of a mine, exactly how they should be designed and what they should do.
National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich praised NIOSH for recommending that mine operators be allowed to choose between mobile refuges and hardened ones.
“One size never fits all,” Popovich said. “So far, our industry has almost 750 mobile rescue chambers on order, at about $100,000 a piece.”
The United Mine Workers also praised NIOSH.
“We agree with the NIOSH findings that these things need to be deployed in underground mines. We’ve always said that,” spokesman Phil Smith said. “It’s disappointing that it’s taken 30 some years since the first time that this was mentioned.”
NIOSH estimates portable refuge chambers will cost the industry far more. The report says an $80,000 shelter would cost another $261,000 to $354,000 for training, maintenance and moving over a 10-year life span.
A shelter built into a mine would cost about the same if it didn’t have to be moved more than once a year to stay close to active mining areas. Moving a shelter twice a year would increase the cost about 75 percent, NIOSH said.
The price would come atop costs required to meet other recent safety mandates. Leading coal companies, such as Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy Co., have estimated earlier expenses are adding about 50 cents per ton of coal to operating costs.
NIOSH also found several problems when it tested refuge chambers approved for use by the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.
Randy Harris, the agency’s engineering adviser, says those problems have been fixed and retested by NIOSH after the report was written.
“On all of them, there were things that they’re recommending a little fix here, a little fix there,” Harris said. “Everybody went ahead and did all that.”