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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal regulators on Thursday announced plans to phase out the coal industry's use of a defective model of emergency breathing device, giving the nation's mine operators up to 20 months to replace nearly 70,000 units.The move by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration comes more than six years after the 2006 Sago Mine Disaster, where survivor Randal McCloy said four units failed the 12 miners who died after being trapped deep underground following a powerful explosion.MSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health acted only after a two-year investigation that started in February 2010 when the maker of the devices, Pittsburgh-based CSE Corp., reported an oxygen starter problem similar to that described by McCloy.Last week, NIOSH issued its long-awaited report of that investigation, confirming a "critical" defect in the oxygen bottles meant to kick-start CSE's SR-100, the mining industry's most widely used model of self-contained self-rescuer, or SCSR.
The phase-out announced by MSHA gives mine operators until Dec. 31, 2013, to replace any and all SR-100 units they have with other models of SCSR approved by the agency.In a prepared statement, MSHA chief Joe Main defended the nearly two-year timeline for replacing all of the units."Due to the large number of CSE SR-100s in underground coal mines, multiple SCSRs available to miners, the low probability of failure and the shortage of immediately available replacements, MSHA and NIOSH have determined that an orderly phase-out will better protect the safety of the miners than immediate withdrawal of the devices," Main said.Under the MSHA plan, miners who rove around underground -- such as safety examiners or water pumping crewmen who don't have easy access to backup caches of units -- must be given a different model SCSR or a backup SR-100 to wear within 30 days. All other miners must be given new or backup equipment by April 26, 2013, and all SR-100s must be out of the mines by Dec. 31, 2013.CSE stopped making and selling the SR-100 and last year began marketing a new model of SCSR that the company says is smaller, lighter and produces 40 percent more oxygen than the SR-100, which was rated to supply at least one hour of breathable air."We have complete confidence in all of the products we produce and want our customers to know that we are prepared to support their needs during this time of orderly transition and in the future," CSE said in a statement issued Thursday afternoon.Other SCSR makers include Wisconsin-based Ocenco and the German firm Drager.Bruce Watzman, vice president for safety issues at the National Mining Association, said his organization was still reviewing the MSHA announcement and had no immediate comment."We have encouraged MSHA to be aggressive in dealing with this issue, and we believe this initiative meets that goal," said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers union.In 1969, Congress required coal operators to provide all miners with an emergency device that would provide them at least one hour of breathable air to help them escape in the event of an underground fire or explosion.The SR-100 model uses a chemical process to generate oxygen, based in part on a reaction with carbon dioxide being exhaled by its user. Miners are supposed to start the unit by exhaling into it.
Over the years, coal miners had expressed complaints about SCSRs not starting or appearing to start slowly. Government and industry officials generally dismissed those complaints, saying the real problem was that miners didn't understand how to use the units properly.After Sago, McCloy testified that the SR-100s of four of the 12 miners trapped by the Jan. 2, 2006, explosion wouldn't start.MSHA dismissed McCloy's complaints. "Some of the miners had trouble donning their SCSRs and breathing through them," the MSHA investigation report on Sago said. "However, testing indicated that the units produced oxygen as intended."Later, lawmakers in West Virginia and then Washington also ordered companies to add extra breathing devices to be stored in key locations underground. They took no action about the SR-100 concerns described by McCloy.Separate reports by mine safety expert Davitt McAteer and the UMW's safety department recommended much tougher scrutiny of the SR-100 and the speedy development of better and more reliable SCSRs that were also easier to use.Under federal regulations, MSHA and NIOSH jointly certify the devices as complying with government standards, and the agencies have an agreement through which they are jointly charged with dealing with any problems that come up later when devices are in use.
In 2010, MSHA and NIOSH launched a joint investigation of problems that were eventually traced to the oxygen cylinders used in the initial start-up of the SR-100 devices. Initially, CSE said it had instituted a "recall" of the troubled units, but later conceded it had not actually ordered coal companies to stop using the devices.In lawsuits after the Sago disaster, families of the miners were investigating concerns that the SR-100 cylinders, made by a vendor for CSE, somehow leaked, leaving the units without enough oxygen to start properly. Those suits were settled, and the terms were kept confidential.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.