Two years ago, the Bush administration rejected a proposal to give coal miners text-messaging devices that could warn them of underground fires and explosions.
If the Sago Mine had had these devices, 13 miners trapped underground could have been told it was safe for them to walk out after a Jan. 2 explosion.
If workers at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine three weeks later had had text-messaging devices, they could have been warned sooner of a dangerous fire that killed two workers.
Last week, Gov. Joe Manchin pushed through legislation to require these devices in West Virginia's 150 underground coal mines.
Manchin and West Virginia's congressional delegation have asked President Bush to implement a similar mandate nationwide. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has asked for public comments on what kinds of new communications equipment would improve mine rescue efforts.
But MSHA already could have acted to accept text-messaging proposals that labor and industry officials made after a major mine disaster in Alabama.
The nation's 42,000 underground coal miners already could have communication devices to help them escape potentially deadly mine accidents, according to a review of public records and interviews with mine safety experts.
U.S. coal companies have known about the devices — called Personal Emergency Devices, or PEDs — since at least the late 1980s. But without an industry-wide mandate, few operators have installed the systems in their mines. Only 19 of about 800 underground U.S. mines use PEDs, according to MSHA records.
"You hate to regulate everything, but if they're not going to do it, doggone it, we ought to make them," Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat whose father was a coal miner, said during a subcommittee hearing last week in Washington.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said the state's delegation is drafting nationwide legislation that would mirror parts of Manchin's bill.
"I'm amazed at the technology that we have that we're not using," Byrd said in an interview. "The state of West Virginia is taking aggressive steps at its level, but these steps are only a beginning."
A 'success story'
A Personal Emergency Device works kind of like a Blackberry or the text-messaging feature of your cell phone. But PEDs are built to withstand the harsh environment inside coal mines, and to not spark and cause fires or explosions. Also, PEDs provide only one-way communication. Miners can receive messages, but cannot reply.
Generally, the PED paging system consists of a transmitter that uses ultra-low frequency electromagnetic fields to send communications from the surface through hundreds of feet of rock and earth.
Individual miners carry PED units integrated into the belt-mounted battery packs they carry underground to power their cap lamps. The cap lamp flashes when a message is received from a personal computer on the surface. The miner reads a text message on a liquid-crystal display on top of his belt-mounted battery pack.
Almost 20 years ago, a company called Mine Site Technologies developed the system in Australia.
The company came up with the devices after the deaths of 12 miners in a July 1986 explosion at the Moura No. 4 underground mine in Queensland.
For a mine the size of Sago, it would cost about $100,000 to install a PED system and give each miner a pager, former MSHA chief Davitt McAteer, now Manchin's mine safety adviser, told lawmakers during last week's Senate hearing.
In the United States, PEDs received widespread attention after a November 1998 fire at the Willow Creek Mine in Carbon County, Utah.
About a year later, longtime MSHA official Marvin Nichols touted the use of PEDs at Willow Creek during a September 1999 speech to an international mine safety conference in Winnipeg, Canada. Nichols called the incident a "success story."
When four miners from a longwall section reported a fire, mine management activated the PED system, Nichols said.
"The entire work force left the mine safely within about 45 minutes," Nichols said, according to a transcript of his speech.
"This was a serious fire," Nichols said. "[But] not one person suffered injury during the emergency or during the recovery of the mine. Part of the credit for that achievement almost certainly belongs to this Personal Emergency Device."
Nichols said the PED "seems to be a very promising example of new technology that can help to protect miners." But he added, "This is not required by U.S. mining law. The mine operator had installed this system voluntarily."
The following year, in July 2000, there was another fire at the Willow Creek Mine, now operated by RAG American Coal Company Inc.
Again, the PED system helped all the miners evacuate safely.
"The use of the PED system was instrumental in alerting miners underground of the need to evacuate," MSHA said in its final report on the second Willow Creek fire.
"Miners working in active and remote areas of the mine at the time of the explosion were notified through the use of the PED," said the report. "These miners all safely exited the mine."
Ray McKinney, then MSHA's district manager in Norton, Va., and now the agency's top coal mine safety official, was the lead author of the Willow Creek report.
Learning from Jim Walter
In September 2001, 13 miners died in a series of explosions at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine outside Tuscaloosa, Ala.
After an investigation, MSHA blamed most of the deaths on "poor emergency management."
The first explosion injured four miners, one seriously, and damaged the mine's ventilation controls. Most of the miners underground knew there was an emergency, but didn't know about the explosion or the dangers of a secondary blast. So, they traveled toward the affected section of the mine to help their co-workers. A bigger explosion, fueled by methane and coal dust, then killed 12 miners.
After the Jim Walter disaster, then-MSHA chief Dave Lauriski moved quickly to rewrite the agency's mine emergency rules.
Lauriski issued an emergency rule that focused on requiring coal companies to designate one mine official to take charge during fires, explosions or floods. Under Lauriski's rule, that person would assess the situation, and order an evacuation if miners faced an imminent danger.
"We are acting to strengthen emergency preparedness immediately, throughout the underground coal mining industry," Lauriski said in a news release.
Australian PED-maker Mine Site Technologies wrote to MSHA to encourage the agency to amend the rule to require its devices in U.S. mines.
"The need for such a device was identified by the U.S. coal industry in the mid-1980s, where the former U.S. Bureau of Mines undertook some development work on a 'through-the-earth' fire warning device," wrote Dennis Kent, one of Mine Site Technologies' engineers.
"Where as the USBM system was never commercialized, PED was; and to date it has been installed in 106 mines, having been used in coal mines in Australia since 1990 and the U.S. since 1995," Kent wrote.
Kent added that the devices were put into all Australian mines, "not through mandatory legislation, but through choice, which would not have occurred if there wasn't tangible safety and cost benefits associated with the installation of PED."
At one of MSHA's public hearings on the rule, officials from RAG American Coal showed up to talk about the use of PEDs at the Willow Creek fires.
"The PED system has been a major improvement of mine communications," Lincoln Derrick of RAG's Twentymile Coal Co. said during a February 2003 hearing in Grand Junction, Colo.
MSHA officials at the hearing asked Derrick to explain more about the PED system, and comment on its reliability.
"The system is used extensively," Derrick told the MSHA officials. "The nice thing about the PED system is it is not just an emergency device that we see in too many disasters.
"Sometimes units that aren't used on a regular basis fail," he said. "It is a regular communication tool. So you are testing it dozens of times every shift."
Derrick added, "I don't believe we would ever have any negative comment about whether it was worth the installation. It has been extremely reliable."
In written comments, RAG's Charles Burggraf noted that MSHA's rule requires mine management to have "ready access" to a communications system, but does not spell out what that means.
"Will a mine pager telephone system be adequate? Will two means of communication be necessary? Will two-way communication be necessary?" Burggraf wrote in a January 2003 letter to MSHA.
New Mexico-based San Juan Coal Co. sent a letter to MSHA to advocate the use of PEDs.
The United Mine Workers union reminded MSHA that the UMW's report on the Jim Walter disaster recommended a requirement for improved communications devices.
"The PED Emergency Communication System has the ability to send emergency instruction simultaneously to all personnel and vehicles in fifteen seconds," the UMW said in that report. "Various mines in the United States utilize this system. It has been used to contact miners in remote areas where phones are not located and to withdraw miners during emergencies.
"The PED signal will propagate through several hundreds of meters of rock strata and can be received at any location throughout the mine with a loop antenna on the surface," the UMW report said.
On Sept. 8, 2003, MSHA issued the final version of its rewrite of mine emergency rules. The agency declined to require PED systems in underground mines.
At the time, Marvin Nichols — who had so lavishly praised the PED system in a 1999 speech — was director of MSHA's Office of Standards, Regulations and Variances, the agency branch in charge of the rule changes.
"MSHA has not made the PED system a requirement of the final rule," the agency said in a Federal Register notice. MSHA believes that the PED system is generally effective and encourages its use. However, since technology is constantly changing, newer systems that may be as, or more, effective than the PED may be developed."
In a news release that same day, Lauriski said the rule change "provides one more tool to help send more miners home safe at the end of every working day."
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.