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Coal mine rescue chambers won’t work, agency says

Rescue chambers like those that recently saved nickel miners in Australia and potassium chloride miners in Canada would not work in U.S. coal mines, a federal mine safety official said Monday.

In a conference call, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration offered its first public explanation for why it ignored a 1969 law that allowed it to require coal operators to install the chambers.

“That’s an issue,” said Bob Friend, acting deputy director of MSHA. “That regulation has been on the books, and it’s mentioned in the mine act.”

Around the world, all sorts of mines use various types of airtight, reinforced boxes — stocked with food, water and oxygen supplies — to protect miners who become trapped underground.

Since late 1969, federal coal-mine safety laws have allowed MSHA and its predecessor agencies to require mine operators to install these chambers. But for more than 36 years, government officials charged with enforcing those laws have ignored that authority, at least when it comes to the coal industry.

Friend said that MSHA rules require rescue chambers under certain circumstances in metal and nonmetal mines across the country.

Around the country, at least 21 noncoal mines have installed rescue chambers under those requirements, Friend said. An undetermined number of other noncoal mines have voluntarily installed the chambers, he said.

“Coal is a different beast,” Friend said when asked to explain MSHA’s inaction on coal industry rescue chambers. “It’s totally different than metal and nonmetal mines.”

Friend said that rescue chambers would not work in some small coal mines where coal seams are not tall enough to allow them to be installed.

Also, Friend said, coal seams can catch fire, spreading flames to rescue chambers. Rescue chambers could also be damaged or destroyed by dust explosions, Friend said.

“It’s just a different area in coal mining,” Friend said.

In the 1969 mine safety act, lawmakers did not specifically mandate that MSHA force operators to install rescue chambers.

But in its report on the law, a House committee said it expected regulators to act if a National Academy of Engineering study determined the chambers were effective.

In its March 1970 report, the academy said that rescue chambers would be a better alternative than having miners barricade themselves behind brattice cloth or wood framing to try to avoid toxic carbon monoxide gas.

Miners could hold out in the chambers, waiting for rescue. Chambers could also “serve as way stations for miners escaping from the mine to rest, replace or replenish emergency breathing devices, and communicate with the surface,” the academy report said.

The academy also proposed that chambers be made with metal bulkheads and doors that could protect against fires and explosions.

“The bulkhead could be anchored by roof bolts into the roof and floor,” the report said. “It would be made in sections that could be easily moved as mining sections are opened and closed.”

A professor of mining engineering who is leading a National Mining Association study of mine rescue equipment has said that rescue chambers would work and should be used in U.S. coal mines.

Rescue chambers were not included in Gov. Joe Manchin’s mine rescue legislation and are not in the bill sponsored by members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation.

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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