Feds to Require Airtight Refuge Chambers in All Coal Mines

By | June 16, 2008

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is taking a stab at requiring airtight emergency refuges in the nation’s 624 underground coal mines.

Mine operators can either store building materials underground, build airtight rooms, or place prefabricated refuges in the mines under rules proposed by the agency June 13. All would have to provide enough air, water and other necessities to keep miners alive at least four days while they await rescue. The nation has about 42,200 underground coal miners.

The proposal would put into regulation actions required of operators since last year when MSHA ordered companies to provide at least 96 hours of breathable emergency air supplies.

“While miners must continue to follow their first instinct — which is to withdraw from the mine in the event of an emergency — this proposed regulation calls for a protected, secure space that creates a life-sustaining environment when escape is not possible,” MSHA director Richard Stickler said in a prepared statement.

The proposal is required by federal legislation passed after high-profile accidents in 2006 that killed 19 miners, including 12 at West Virginia’s Sago Mine. The agency hopes to issue final rules by the end of 2008.

MSHA estimates it would cost the coal industry between $84.1 million and $102.6 million in the first year and between $38.7 million and $43.3 million a year after that.

The National Mining Association does not yet have a comment on the proposal, spokesman Luke Popovich said.

The United Mine Workers, however, is concerned that the rule doesn’t go far enough, spokesman Phil Smith said in an e-mail. “We’re going to have trouble with the ‘Materials pre-positioned for miners to use to construct a secure space’ language. It raises a whole host of issues for us.”

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health concluded earlier this year that airtight refuge chambers could save trapped miners and merit installation. The agency also determined that building barricades is not viable for keeping trapped miners alive.

“We’d like to see shelters that meet the requirements of the law,” Smith said. The UMW has been pushing for refuge chambers since Congress authorized MSHA’s predecessor to require them in 1969.

The proposal likely won’t have much effect in West Virginia, the nation’s top underground coal producer.

About one-third of the state’s 150 underground mines already have installed state-approved refuge chambers, said Ron Wooten, director of the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.

MSHA’s proposal would let mines keep using state-approved chambers and MSHA-approved breathable air supplies for up to 10 years. West Virginia mines then would have to install MSHA-approved chambers.

Allowing mines to merely stockpile building materials might be safe, Wooten said.

“It depends. If you can build an airlock, yeah, it’s OK,” he said. “It would require a good deal of training.”

Public hearings on the proposal are scheduled this summer in Salt Lake City, Charleston, Lexington, Ky. and Birmingham, Ala.

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