Over the last five years, coal mines around the country have had more than 400 “near miss” fires and explosions that could have turned into disasters, the United Mine Workers union warned this week.UMW President Cecil Roberts provided a list of the incidents to lawmakers in Washington, D.C., during a Senate subcommittee hearing Monday.In his prepared testimony, Roberts said the Jan. 2 explosion at the Sago Mine and the Jan. 19 fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine “represent only the headline-grabbing incidents” that kill or injure miners.“Thousands of miners are still disabled and dying from black lung disease, while other miners also die in mining accidents each year,” Roberts said. “Typically they die one or two at a time, from roof falls, equipment failures and other accidents.”Roberts told lawmakers that, “there are also countless near-misses that occur on a regular basis.”To back up that point, Roberts gave committee staff a list of more than 400 “mine fires, ignitions, explosions and inundations” reported by coal operators since August 2000.Roberts said these incidents “far too easily could have developed into significant disasters and fatalities.” He added that “many other incidents likely went unreported.”The UMW’s list includes a variety of small fires, releases of methane into working areas, and other incidents that regulators call “ignitions” of explosive gas.Methane gas is present in all coal mines, and is naturally released from coal seams and the ground around them. Some companies have taken to collecting methane and selling it for a profit. But inside underground mines, methane creates a constant danger of fires and explosions.
Under federal regulations, coal operators must design and maintain elaborate ventilation systems to suck methane from the mines. This keeps air in the mines safe for breathing, and reduces the risk of explosions.Operators must follow numerous regulations to reduce the risk of larger explosions. They are also required to keep mines clean of other combustible materials — coal dust, loose coal, oily rags and other materials — so that when methane does ignite, the chance of fires spreading is minimized.In an effort to police compliance with these rules, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration requires operators to report to the agency any unplanned ignitions. The agency requires immediate notification by phone, and a written report within 30 days. MSHA also inspects mines immediately after they report unplanned ignitions.Most of the ignitions on the UMW’s list — about 355 out of 402 — did not involve any injuries to miners. But methane ignitions can be an early warning that explosive gases are building up to very dangerous levels.In the month before a September 2001 explosion that killed 13 miners, there were three unplanned ignitions at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine outside Tuscaloosa, Ala.After that disaster, members of UMW Local 2368, who worked at the No. 5 Mine, said they had warned management about methane buildups and ignitions.
Roberts told lawmakers in Washington the constant danger in underground mines shows the need for tougher inspection and enforcement by MSHA.“With better regulations, more regular enforcement, and with support from the highest echelons of the agency, many of these accidents could have been prevented,” Roberts said.“Senseless deaths and injuries must stop,” he said. “Mining will probably always be a dangerous job. But we can do a lot more than we are doing today to make it safer.”