Coal Tattoo

What can we learn from the Chilean mine rescue?

In this photo released by the Chilean presidential press office, Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera, front right, hugs rescued miner Florencio Avalos after Avalos was rescued from the collapsed San Jose gold and copper mine where he was trapped with 32 other miners for over two months near Copiapo, Chile, Tuesday Oct. 12, 2010. (AP Photo/Jose Manuel de la Maza, Chilean presidential press office)

As folks in the coalfields of the United States are glued to their televisions watching the rescue of the Chilean copper and gold miners, it’s only natural to think about what the coal-mining industry could learn from this experience.

It’s worth noting that it was an American drilling crew — a Somerset, Pa., team that was involved in the 2002 Quecreek Mine rescue — that provided that drill that actually broke through to the part of the mine where those 33 workers had been trapped for more than two months.

We’ve talked before about problematic safety standards in Chilean mines, but there’s something else that sticks in the back of my mind as I watched the incredible rescue so far away in Chile.

The last major mine safety story I wrote before April 5 was headlined, Four years after Sago, few mines have new communications gear.  That March 20 Gazette story reported:

More than four years after the Sago Mine disaster, fewer than one of every 10 underground coal mines in the United States has added improved communications and tracking equipment that could help miners escape an explosion or fire.

Last week, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration released an updated count of mine operators who have installed new communications and tracking gear required by Congress after Sago and a series of other disasters in 2006.

Nationwide, 415 active underground mines are required to have added this equipment. But, according to MSHA’s most recent count, only 34 have such equipment installed and fully operational. That’s a little more than 8 percent, according to the MSHA data, which was released during a mine safety conference at Wheeling Jesuit University.

I wrote a related blog post here, in which I discussed how Democratic congressional leaders — with the exception of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd — didn’t want to comment for that story.

Now, we’ve learned already that the emergency response to the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster didn’t necessarily go as smoothly as it could have.  And at the point I published that story about the lack of progress on emergency gear, it had been two years since a scathing review by the U.S. Government Accountability Office of the implementation of the mine rescue reforms mandated by the MINER Act.

Regulatory agencies and politicians — and we in the media — tend to respond to emergencies, and to focus only on the crisis at hand. Currently for MSHA, that’s dealing with the Upper Big Branch disaster investigation and struggling to clear up the backlog of appealed citations and fines at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.

Preventing disasters, and thus preventing the need for mine rescues, is of course the proper focus. But some things just keep creeping into my mind, like, well — who in Congress is asking MSHA and NIOSH what the heck is up with their ongoing (and very secretive) investigation of the CSE SR-100 self-contained self-rescuer that so many American coal miners rely on in case of an explosion or fire? (See previous posts here, here, here and here).

Legislation to further reform coal-mine safety in this country appears stalled for now … but in the meanwhile, why don’t Democratic congressional leaders hold hearings just to check in on the MINER Act’s mine rescue provisions? Even with a Democrat in the White House and a UMWA safety director running MSHA, don’t members of Congress have a responsibility to perform some stronger oversight in this area?

In this screen grab taken from video, Jorge Galeguillos, center, the eleventh miner to be rescued from the San Jose Mine near Copiapo, Chile, is shown after his rescue Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2010. (AP Photo)