Coal Tattoo

Mine communications reforms lag behind


It was a dramatic moment in a dramatic hearing, held just weeks after 12 miners died at Sago and only a few days after two more died at Aracoma.

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the son of a coal miner, wondering why miners at those operations weren’t equipped with simple text-messaging devices that might have saved their lives. Of course, the answer was that the Bush administration had rejected calls from labor and some in the industry to require such devices — and without a specific regulatory mandate, coal operators didn’t act. Responding to the industry inaction, Harkin said:

You hate to regulate everything, but if they’re not going to do it, doggone it, we ought to make them.

But, it took another disaster — the deaths of five miners at Kentucky Darby — before Congress would step in and require two-way wireless communications devices as part of the MINER Act, the first major rewrite of federal mine safety and health laws since 1977.

So what’s happened since then? Well, as we reported in a major Sunday Gazette-Mail story yesterday, fewer than 1 in 10 underground coal mines nationwide has actually met the ultimate requirements of the MINER Act for two-way wireless communications systems.

The story was based largely on this Power Point presentation, delivered by MSHA officials during a mine safety workshop last week at Wheeling Jesuit University.

One of the interesting things to me in reporting this story was that few congressional representatives I contacted wanted to comment. Only Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., expressed any concern about delays in compliance with the MINER Act. That’s quite different from just two years ago, when Democratic leaders in Congress were all over MSHA for not moving fast enough. Of course, since then a Democrat has taken over the White House and appointed a labor-friendly Assistant Labor Secretary for MSHA. You have to wonder if congressional oversight of mine safety is going to suffer from a lack of serious attention now.

I’ve also had an interesting reaction today from Randy Harris, a consultant who has worked with the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training on communications equipment issues. Randy sent me a couple of e-mail messages, upset that my story focused on the lack of compliance with MSHA rules instead of the success the industry has had meeting West Virginia’s own communications and tracking system requirements. According to Randy:

You short sold the hard work done by WV miners and manufacturers.  Instead of recognizing their initiative and hard work you made them look worse than everybody else.  That is not fair.   WV’s miners are the best protected in the nation because of their efforts and the casual reader (which is most of them) will assume that they have done little.

WV is leading the nation in mine safety and THAT should be the story from a WV newspaper. Your article missed the real story.

It’s true, as West Virginia mine safety director Ron Wooten told me this morning, that West Virginia mine operators have met the state’s requirements for adding new communications and tracking systems.

But what Randy Harris didn’t mention, but my story did, is that West Virginia’s requirements are quite different from the MSHA mandate. In particular, the West Virginia requirements (see this link, and read 335 of the PDF) do not require coverage on the working sections of underground mines. MSHA requirements do. And mine operators who are meeting West Virginia’s requirements are having a much tougher time with that MSHA mandate, as Wooten told me:

That’s a big, big issue for the operators and the manufacturers.

As MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere told me last week:

Most manufacturers have focused their attention on WV mine installations because of the stringent deadlines for installation imposed by the state.  The systems that have been installed to comply with the WV state requirements do not comply with MSHA requirements because WV does not require working section coverage while MSHA does.  Therefore, the WV installations are not included in the MSHA count of complete, compliant installations.

The real story here is that, while the coal industry has spent a ton of money to meet new safety requirements, few of the nation’s coal miners have access to the emergency communications gear Congress tried to mandate. If, God forbid, there is an explosion today in an underground coal mine, the rest of this stuff is just meaningless details to the miners who might end up trapped and unable to communicate with the surface.

We’ll have to see if congressional leaders are as eager to jump in and push MSHA and the industry on this, now that doing so would mean criticizing a Democratic White House and a labor-friendly administration at MSHA.