Gov. Joe Manchin on Monday praised efforts to improve communications deep inside West Virginia’s underground coal mines.“They’re trying everything possible,” Manchin said, after a tour of a Northern Panhandle mine that is testing new communications gear. “I am very encouraged by the things we have just witnessed.”Manchin toured CONSOL Energy Inc.’s huge McElroy Mine near Moundsville to learn about the communications equipment being used and studied there.Davitt McAteer, a mine safety adviser to Manchin, set up the tour to dispel industry complaints that new state requirements for communications systems are too stringent.“This was a very positive visit,” McAteer said. “We were able to see just how the new technologies are taking place.”CONSOL barred reporters from taking part in the mine tour.Manchin and McAteer held a news conference later at Wheeling Jesuit University, where McAteer is vice president of sponsored programs and officials will host a second annual international mine safety symposium in April.
After the Sago Mine disaster and the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine fire, Manchin pushed a bill through the Legislature requiring mine operators to provide every underground miner with a wireless communications device and an electronic miner-tracking device.Manchin and lawmakers left many of the details up to the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.Last year, the agency d elayed the deadlines for mine operators to submit new communications plans from early 2006 until July 31, 2007.Coal industry lobbyists have continued to say that adequate technology to meet the requirement doesn’t exist.
The state’s current rules do not allow the mine safety director Ronald Wooten to approve any communications equipment that does not meet a long list of tough requirements.McAteer has been pushing for the industry and regulators to not demand a perfect solution, but to install better equipment that currently exists as a first step in the process.During Monday’s news conference, Manchin backed McAteer’s philosophy.“If you waited until we have a perfect cell phone system, so you have perfect clarity wherever you travel, none of us would own cell phones,” the governor said. “We’d be waiting and waiting and waiting.”
Manchin and McAteer did not describe details of the equipment they saw tested at McEloy. But in June 2006, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said that tests at several CONSOL mines had produced “promising results.”MSHA especially praised a low-frequency radio that sent two-way text messages at depths of 558 and 631 feet underground.Tested at CONSOL’s Enlow Fork Mine in Western Pennsylvania, the system also transmitted cell-phone quality voice signals for more than two miles in a mine tunnel, MSHA said.McAteer noted that on Friday, a pair of small mine equipment suppliers surprised state regulators by submitting plans for a new communications system.Another manufacturer, Elkins-based Hannah Engineering, is putting the final touches on its own application.Under state rules, companies that want to market communications system must receive approval of those systems from state regulators. Then, coal companies must receive separate approval for their plans to install those systems.
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.