Mine rescue: Are the reforms really working?

October 20, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

We followed up this morning in the Gazette with a lengthy story about a development we first broke on Saturday: What could be major safety concerns about the reliability of mine refuge shelters being used in the nation’s underground coal mines. Today’s story explains:

Concerns about potentially faulty underground mine refuge shelters are much broader than previously reported, but federal and state regulators delayed action on the matter for months, interviews and a review of public records showed this week.

Corroded and improperly sized fittings could be a problem for more than 1,500 shelters in use in coal mines across the country — including both inflatable, “tent-design” units and other, hardened steel structures, officials acknowledged and records indicated.

Federal and state mine safety officials have understood the problem for months, but only began taking enforcement action in September. Even then, firm steps were delayed at the behest of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, after coal industry lobbyists complained about the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training’s plans.

There are a variety of state and federal documents about this story online from the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training website here.

In today’s story, Phil Smith of the United Mine Workers noted that the lack of transparency on this issue is similar to that in the ongoing investigation of major problems with the mining industry’s most widely used brand of self-contained self-rescuer.  Phil got me to thinking about the status of the promised mine rescue reforms that grew out of the Sago Mine Disaster and the Aracoma Mine fire in 2006.

Stop yourself and consider it for a minute … We’ve had this issue with SCSRs, in which it’s not clear at all how many miners might still be stuck with problem units.  Questions remain about the implementation of requirements for mine emergency communications and tracking gear. The Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster revealed continuing problems with the mine rescue team system that remain unresolved by MSHA. Now, we have this potentially serious issue with rescue chambers or shelters.

And not for nothing … But just last week, folks at the West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety were discussing repeated problems with getting information quickly when accidents occur underground.  Then today, the Wheeling paper has some interesting reporting about problems with the way CONSOL handled emergency response during what turned out to be a fatal accident Monday night here in West Virginia:

Emergency calls from the site were placed directly to STAT Medevac and Tri-State EMS, not to the county 911 center, he said.

But when a medical helicopter arrived, firefighters were needed to set up a landing zone, and the ambulance service also called for additional aid.

“A direct call to 911 simplifies everything,” Hart said. “By dialing 911, all those resources are managed from a single point of contact.”

Hart said the EMA will hold an “after-action” meeting with Consol to make sure all emergency procedures were followed properly. He couldn’t say, however, that a call to the 911 center would have resulted in a different outcome.

“It’s a very unfortunate situation,” he said.

So what’s going on? Have the reforms ordered after the 2006 disasters really been fully implemented? Have regulators and the industry done enough? Can they ever do enough, when the job before them is making sure every worker gets home to their family after every shift?

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