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More oxygen ordered in mines

More than 37,000 underground coal miners and contract workers nationwide would be provided with adequate emergency oxygen to escape from fires and explosions, under a temporary federal government rule.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration plans to publish the temporary rule on Thursday, and then make the requirement permanent later this year.

MSHA announced plans for the rule a month ago. Since then, the agency has been working out details, and seeking White House approval for the rule.

In the text of the emergency rule, MSHA argued that that additional oxygen would have saved “most of” the victims of the Jan. 2 Sago Mine disaster, the Jan. 19 Aracoma Mine fire and a 1984 fire in Utah that killed 27 workers.

But in a conference call news briefing, MSHA lawyer Ed Clair wasn’t as definite when asked if the rule would have saved the Sago and Aracoma miners.

“Both of those investigations are in progress and ongoing,” Clair told reporters. “It’s too early to speculate about that.

“It’s impossible to know today what actually would have saved those miners lives, based on what we know,” Clair said.

In the emergency rule text, MSHA also revealed that it has known since at least 1998 that the previously required one-hour air supply was inadequate to allow escape by miners in more than a third of the nation’s underground coal mines.

That year, an MSHA study found that it would take more than an hour to evacuate 234 of the nation’s more than 600 underground coal mines. At 76 of those 234 mines, miners would need more than two hours of air to escape, the study found.

The Clinton administration was working on a rulemaking proposal to require additional oxygen, but it was dropped after President George W. Bush took office.

“It is a shame that the federal agency charged with protecting coal miners has to be spurred to action by the tragic season of death that has cost 21 miners their lives so far this year,” said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. “If MSHA were not asleep at the switch, perhaps those men would still be alive today.”

In its new rule, MSHA adds at least one additional one-hour air device to the one device that coal companies must already provide to all miners.

At mines where the two together would not be adequate for escape, companies must submit plans to store additional oxygen in mine escapeways, the MSHA rule says.

MSHA said the lack of additional oxygen puts miners in “grave danger,” the legal finding necessary for the agency to immediately impose the emergency rule on the industry.

Though the rule technically takes effect when published in the Federal Register Thursday, MSHA is giving coal companies 30 days from that date to submit compliance plans.

In addition, companies that cannot immediately obtain the additional oxygen and other equipment required could show compliance by submitting purchase orders to MSHA, the rule says.

The MSHA rule also requires companies to train workers in the use of the additional oxygen, to conduct better evacuation drills and install lifeline devices to guide miners out of underground mines.

Also, the rule would require mine operators to report accidents to MSHA within 15 minutes to allow faster rescue responses.

“We want every miner to have the equipment and the training to escape — to evacuate the mine,” said Bob Friend, acting deputy assistant secretary of labor for MSHA.

MSHA estimated that complying with the rule would cost the coal industry $54.7 million in the first year and $18.9 million each year after that.

Agency officials said that the annual costs amount to 0.2 percent of all revenues for all underground coal mines nationwide.

In a prepared statement, National Mining Association President Kraig R. Naasz said that MSHA “is headed in the right direction” with the rule.

“This standard is a long and detailed document that merits our thorough review and consideration,” Naasz said.

United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said that the MSHA rule “is another step forward for miner safety, but there is much more to do.

“MSHA has still not addressed the immediate implementation of underground communications improvements or location tracking devices,” Roberts said. “It has still not rescinded its rule allowing belt air ventilation. It has still not issued rules mandating mine rescue teams at each mine in America, as required by the [federal mine safety law].

“It’s especially galling for the agency to continue its foot-dragging with respect to implementing underground communications until the technology is ‘perfected,’ ” Roberts said. “This just parrots what the coal companies are saying and could cost miners’ lives.

"Something that works 75 or even 50 percent of the time is 75 or 50 percent more effective than what miners have now, which is nothing," Roberts said. "That technology is out there, and must be mandated for use in the mines now while we work to develop and implement technology that works 100 percent of the time."

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


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