The cave-in that trapped six men in a Utah coal mine happened too soon for key safety reforms adopted after a dozen miners were killed in an underground explosion in West Virginia.
The reforms were meant to protect miners in the event of a fire, explosion or cave-in like last year’s disaster at the Sago Mine. But government-mandated changes involving communication and tracking equipment do not take effect until 2009. And a federal official said manufacturing delays had prevented the Utah mine from stockpiling the required four days of food, water and oxygen.
“It’s been very difficult for the industry to get these things,” said Al Davis, a district manager in the Denver office of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Also waiting to go into effect are rules dealing with refuge chambers, additional mine rescue teams and stronger seals between active and inactive mine shafts. The law gives MSHA until the end of this year to deal with these issues.
National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich says the delay in installing wireless communications systems underground is reasonable.
Before mines install such equipment, Popovich said, the gear has to be safe and commercially available, and have a support network to keep it running.
MSHA does not certify whether mining equipment works, only whether it is safe to use in coal mines, which often contain explosive methane gas and coal dust. To date, the agency has observed testing or demonstration of 23 communications or tracking systems, and met with representatives from 56 potential manufacturers.
Davis was unsure whether Crandall Canyon mine in Utah had met MSHA requirements on emergency air packs, which are canteen-sized devices with up to one hour of breathable air. Each miner should have been carrying an air pack, and Davis said the mine had stored an extra pack for each miner in the section where they were working.
The owner of the Utah mine has said the trapped men should have plenty of air if they are alive because oxygen naturally leaks into the underground chambers. He said the mine also is stocked with drinking water.
In June, MSHA director Richard Stickler said about half the country’s 670 underground coal mines had two air packs for each miner and 15 percent had stored sufficient air packs along escape routes.
Air pack maker CSE Corp., which has an estimated 60 percent of the U.S. market is on track to fill a long list of backorders by December, said Scott Shearer, president of the Monroeville, Pa.-based company.
As of June, manufacturers had delivered 86,000 air packs, and the National Mining Association estimated 100,000 were on backorder.
United Mine Workers spokesman Phil Smith said Monday’s accident shows why safety improvements were necessary – and why follow-up legislation requiring MSHA to move faster is essential.
“I think we could have had a communication system in there that could have allowed us to communicate with these guys,” Smith said Tuesday. “They could have done this a lot quicker than they have … there was available technology.”
Associated Press writer Pauline Arrillaga in Huntington, Utah, contributed to this report.
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