An explosion ripped through the Sago Mine at about 6:30 a.m. last Monday.At 1:30 p.m., the first rescue team waited outside the mine. They couldn't get started until a backup crew arrived.Not until after 5:30 p.m. — nearly 12 hours after the explosion —would rescuers go underground to search for the Sago miners.To industry officials, labor representatives and mine rescue personnel, this gut-wrenching delay came as no surprise. For more than a decade, all sides of the mining community have complained that the nation's mine rescue system is broken.Last week's 40-hour, mostly unsuccessful rescue effort at the Sago Mine has revealed serious flaws in the network of rescue teams meant to save coal miners caught underground by fires, explosions or floods.A Sunday Gazette-Mail investigation has found that the nation's miners face a mounting risk because of a rescue system that is growing ever short on personnel and is in major need of reforms.No one questions the skill and dedication of the miners who serve on rescue crews in West Virginia and other mining states. But across the country, the number of mine rescue teams available to respond to coal industry emergencies is slowly but surely dwindling.Over the past 30 years, the number of teams taking part in the once-popular national mine safety contest has dropped by nearly 70 percent, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration records.From 2000 to 2002 alone, the number of MSHA-approved safety teams nationwide dropped by 10 percent.By law, every coal mine in the United States must have at least two mine rescue crews. As of 2004, the latest year for which figures are available, there was actually just one rescue team for every four underground coal mines nationwide, according to a computer-assisted analysis of the MSHA data.Since at least 1995, the United Mine Workers union repeatedly has warned about the "depleted rescue team structure in this country."In a 2002 letter to MSHA, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety wrote that the "loss of experience" and "lack of readily available" rescue team members "has been dramatic."As rescuers retire, their positions are going unfilled. Smaller coal companies are opting not to have their own teams, and instead contracting out to rescue companies.More than a decade ago, a major federal report prepared by a conference of industry, labor and rescue team representatives urged speedy action by MSHA to do something to reverse the troubling erosion of the country's mine emergency response system.Three years ago, a study team originally started by the Clinton administration drafted a plan to upgrade MSHA's mine rescue program. After professing interest in the plan, and holding a public hearing to accept comments, the Bush administration in December 2002 quietly scuttled the reform effort.Today, nothing has been done, and the situation grows worse."We're going to be in a heck of a mess here if we don't figure out a solution to this," then-UMW safety director Joe Main warned during one public meeting in March 2002.Learning from disastersWhen it rewrote the federal Mine Health and Safety Act in 1977, Congress noted that several recent disasters involved bungled rescue efforts or the failure of mine operators to properly plan or execute escape plans.For example, one congressional report noted, when 20 miners died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the Cargill salt mine fire in Belle Isle, La., in 1968, investigators found that "firefighting equipment was lacking and mine rescue teams were not maintained by any of the salt mining companies in the area."That same House report noted terrible rescue problems at the 1972 Sunshine silver mine fire at Kellogg, Idaho, where 91 miners died of carbon monoxide poisoning. A Bureau of Mines final report on the Sunshine disaster found that company officials wrongly delayed an evacuation while they searched for the fire, failed to train their miners in self-rescue and survival techniques, and did not conduct evacuation drills.In the landmark 1977 safety law rewrite, Congress required the newly created MSHA to write new regulations to "provide that mine rescue teams shall be available for rescue and recovery work to each underground coal or other mine in the event of an emergency."The law added that, "the costs of making advance arrangements for such teams shall be borne by the operator of each such mine."Generally, the new rules required mining companies to provide two rescue teams for every mine operation. With limited exceptions, these teams must be located within "two hours ground travel time" from each mine.The rules set out requirements for equipment for rescue teams, and for training team members. Also, they spelled out specific requirements for those team members. They had to be in good shape, have good eyesight and hearing, and not have health problems such as high blood pressure or heart conditions.But, the rules also contained some loopholes. Most significantly, they allowed operators to avoid providing the rescue teams themselves at their mine sites, if the companies instead chose to contract out for an off-site team.'You have to be quick'At the Sago Mine, company officials chose to contract out their rescue team to the state Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training, which operates its own emergency crew, according to one MSHA official.That team was one of the crews that responded and handled rescue efforts last week.MSHA has not released an official list of the rescue teams that responded, what times they were called in, or when they arrived on site at the Sago Mine.But various sources say that a local team from Barbour County was involved. Teams from Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy's various mines in north-central West Virginia and western Pennsylvania also took part. At least one team from Illinois apparently was on standby to respond.During a media briefing shortly after the Sago incident began, International Coal Group Vice President Gene Kitts complained that it was "cumbersome" to track down backup rescue crews because the explosion occurred on a holiday.The West Virginia medical examiner has not released the times of death for the miners. Without that information, it's impossible to know for sure, but some safety experts said privately that the time spent waiting for a backup crew could have been very important to the Sago miners.The miners survived for at least 10 hours after the blast, according to a 4:25 p.m. journal entry in one of the miners' notes to his family, according to The Associated Press.On Saturday, a spokesman for International Coal Group, Mark Barkett, told The New York Times that the main reason for the delay was concern about high carbon monoxide levels inside the mine. Barkett said that the high levels had raised concerns about fire.But in a press briefing Monday afternoon, ICG general counsel Roger Nicholson explained the delay this way: "I would say that it's merely a fact of mustering, getting your equipment and heading to the mine site, which is somewhat remote, comparatively speaking."Officials from MSHA have not released a timeline of the rescue effort, or any documents — such as logs of the rescue team arrival times and the mine carbon monoxide tests — that might explain the delay more completely.Davitt McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration, said, "the first rule of mine rescue is that you have to be quick."If you're in Alaska, I could see it taking 12 hours," said McAteer, a Marion County native. "But you're in West Virginia. It should not take 12 hours to get teams together."A few years ago, the Sago Mine could have gotten a rescue crew from MSHA's nearby district office in Morgantown. But the Morgantown MSHA office no longer has its own mine rescue team."We don't really don't have a team, per se," said Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's Morgantown district manager. "We have an MSHA-wide unit now."Instead of a six-person, stand-alone team in Morgantown, MSHA now has three Morgantown staffers assigned to a 30-person nationwide agency emergency crew.Stricklin said Ray McKinney, MSHA's coal mine safety chief, wanted to move away from separate rescue crews at various agency offices. Instead, McKinney has spread rescue expertise among a few staffers in each agency office.Over the past few years, that national team has responded to numerous mine emergencies, including the successful rescue of nine miners trapped in the flooded Quecreek Mine near Somerset, Pa., in July 2002.Consol sent at least six teams to assist with the Sago Mine rescue effort. A crew from its Robinson Run Mine was the first into the mine. Tom Hoffman, a spokesman for Consol, said many teams are needed when a long rescue operation appears in the cards."Our experience with this kind of situation shows that, after about 24 hours, people are going to get tired," Hoffman said.Company-wide, Consol has 10 rescue teams that are considered among the best in the country."As a company that operates 10 big underground mines, it is prudent of us to maintain this capacity," Hoffman said.Nationwide, there are about 150 coal mine rescue teams listed in a 2004 MSHA database.In West Virginia, there are 35 teams listed in that database. The state looks pretty good compared to other coal states.Nationally, there are about four underground mines for every mine rescue team. West Virginia reported 4.34 mines per rescue team, according to the MSHA data. Kentucky reported 12 mines for every team, and Virginia reported 11 mines for every team.'Therein lies the quandary'McAteer was a second-year law student at West Virginia University when he went to work for famed consumer advocate Ralph Nader in 1969 to crusade for mine safety improvements. Twenty years later, after a long career as a mine safety lawyer and activist, McAteer became MSHA chief after Democrat Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992.Among other reform efforts at MSHA, McAteer tried to upgrade the agency's mine rescue rules and program.In January 1995, McAteer sponsored a two-day conference at MSHA's training academy outside Beckley to discuss the issue. About 280 industry officials, labor representatives, mine rescue team members, government officials and educators attended.Joseph Lamonica, a safety representative for the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, summed up their feelings: "The good news is that the record will show that the number of life-threatening injuries is diminishing. The bad news is that the number of people who have mine-emergency experience is also diminishing, and therein lies the quandary."In a 52-page report, the conference attendees recommended a number of changes to MSHA's 15-year-old rescue team rules:
A slight loosening of the strict eligibility requirements for team members, in an effort to recruit new members. Elimination of "rigid requirements" that teams have no fewer than 12 members, to encourage more companies to sponsor teams. Exploring the idea of cost sharing between industry and government to cover the estimated $250,000 annual expense of a team's equipment, training and travel. Limiting citations for violations of various rescue team requirements to problems that are not promptly corrected in good faith, to give operators "a greater incentive to maintain teams."Finally, the conference report asked that MSHA form a group to continue to work to implement the recommendations.McAteer did so three years later. In 1998, MSHA created the Mine Rescue Team Initiative committee.Joe Pavlovich, a longtime MSHA district manager in Kentucky, was appointed by McAteer to lead the panel. Pavlovich, now retired, said the major problem was that MSHA's rule for mine rescue teams was too proscriptive.Consider the two-team-per-mine rule, he said."Say I have two mines close together," Pavlovich said. "The law says I have to have two teams, and I can borrow two teams for each of them from two hours away. But, if I want to station one team at each of my mines, that doesn't comply. That just doesn't make sense."Contract teams are a problem, too, Pavlovich said. They don't get inspected like the company on-site teams do. That means they might not be prepared or have the right equipment. It also means that companies can avoid any potential citations from such inspections by just contracting out, rather than having their own team.Pavlovich and his committee set about reworking the MSHA rule.Taking actionMSHA first included the rescue-team rule rewrite in its formal regulatory agenda in 1999.The agency worked on the proposal, talking to industry and labor representatives and other parties, for several years."We hope to increase the number of mine rescue teams available to assist miners in life-threatening emergencies," MSHA said in one of its agendas.Coming up with a proposal all sides would like was difficult for Pavlovich.UMW officials thought the MSHA draft would give industry too much of what it wanted in the way of more flexible rules. Industry officials were upset the agency would not go along with its demand that companies funding rescue teams be given a break on citations and fines for unrelated safety problems.Still, in May 2002, MSHA announced that it planned to publish a draft rule in the Federal Register sometime that September.Just before that May announcement, though, the Bush administration's new MSHA chief, Dave Lauriski, called a public meeting on mine rescue rules for March.At that meeting, several industry and labor officials expressed concern that they were just attending more meetings that would result in no changes. The Bituminous Coal Operators' Lamonica said his group was concerned that its earlier comments "sort of fell on deaf ears."Jim Vicini, safety director for an Arch Coal subsidiary, Laurel Mountain Processing, said he attended a previous MSHA meeting in 1995 and offered his suggestions."Seven years later, teams have continued to decline, and little, if anything, has been done to help the situation," Vicini said.Nine months later, Lauriski dropped the mine rescue rulemaking from MSHA's agenda."MSHA is withdrawing this item and plans to evaluate non-regulatory alternatives," MSHA said in a Dec. 9, 2002, Federal Register notice.The mine rescue rule was among more than a dozen safety-rule improvements MSHA quietly halted work on, as part of a plan to better "focus" its rulemaking efforts.Pavlovich, along with most labor and industry officials, believes changes in MSHA's mine rescue team program would advance miner safety. Some sort of action already should have been taken, he said."I hate to think what would happen," Pavlovich said last week. "With this country and the resources we have and this industry and the resources we have, and we would have to say, 'We couldn't get over there.' How would we face the families?"Staff writer Scott Finn contributed to this report. To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.