Any number of companies are mining coal today, and countless more manufacture heavy machinery for extracting and processing it. But there’s only one company in all the world making the kind of lifesaving wireless communication devices that became mandatory for West Virginia miners last week.There’s only one manufacturer, and it’s located on the other side of the world.Not until the mining tragedies in Upshur and Logan counties had there been any U.S. market to speak of for high-tech miner-communication gear. The business of producing emergency underground oxygen supplies, meanwhile, has been shared mostly by three companies. Regulators never demanded it, and mining companies have opted against taking the initiative of investing themselves.Emergency rules just passed by the Legislature will change all that.
Wireless communications devices now in use at fewer than 20 mines nationwide will be required for every West Virginia miner — as will tracking devices, which aren’t currently in use at any mines in the country. And mine operators will have to start equipping every area of their mines with stashes of individual emergency breathing apparatuses, containing 16 such devices per miner; today, each miner is required to be given only one.With the stroke of a pen, Gov. Joe Manchin has created an unprecedented demand for such technology. But despite the sense of urgency with which Manchin and the Legislature pushed through the law, it’s bound to be a long time, possibly longer than a year, before the suppliers will be able to fully meet this new demand.Producing communications devices is likely to take the longest.West Virginia’s rules require that the wireless and tracking products be approved beforehand by the federal Mine Health and Safety Administration. Only one wireless communicator and one trackingdevice has MSHA’s stamp. They’re both made by the Australian company Mine Site Technologies Pty. Ltd., based in Artarmon, New South Wales.Mine Site’s Personal Emergency Device, or PED, is a one-way paging system that operates on an ultra-low frequency. It can receive signals from antennae through several thousand feet of rock.Under the new West Virginia rules, the wireless devices “must be capable of receiving emergency communications from the surface at any location throughout the mine.” No other product but the PED can do this, says Denis Kent, Mine Site’s business development manager.“You’ll start to see people entering the market now,” Kent said. “But there’s really no one else” that can maintain communications throughout mines. “Others are merely offering mine radio systems,” which have limited reception.The world’s major technology companies, such as Motorola and Kenwood, have been more interested in making cell phones and other consumer products, Kent said.“It’s a very specialized area,” he said. The research involved and MSHA approval process are huge deterrents, he said. “It takes a lot of infrastructure .... To get approved is not worth their time.”Mine Site, which is privately owned by Australians, spent five years in research and development for the PED about 20 years ago, and it has been selling the device for 15 years. “We saw it as a niche market,” Kent said.
Only 19 of about 800 underground U.S. mines use PEDs, according to MSHA records. Among those are ones run by CONSOL Energy, Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and Energy West, Kent said.Davitt McAteer, a former federal mining official who is heading up the state’s investigation into the Sago Mine disaster, estimated that the cost of equipping that mine with the PED system would have been around $100,000. Kent said that estimate sounds accurate.MSHA officials have praised PEDs’ effectiveness in the past. They’ve credited the devices, for instance, with the rescues of miners in two separate fires at the Willow Creek Mine in Utah.Both regulators and industry representatives, however, say there have been some problems with PEDs.“A few of them [PEDs] have been successful; others are having difficulties,” said Bob Friend, acting deputy assistant secretary of labor for MSHA, during a conference call with reporters last week. “We’re moving forward with testing of the PEDs, by setting up testing with two companies.”“The reviews [of PEDs] are very mixed,” said Bruce Watzman, vice president for safety at the National Mining Association trade group. In some cases, “companies have needed [to install] underground hardware, [such as] boosters or transponders.” The need for these underground relays make PEDs “susceptible to damage in the event of an explosion or roof fall.”
Kent said the difficulties Friend and Watzman refer to can be attributed mainly to faulty maintenance. “It comes down to maintenance — you have some cases where the PEDs were being operated by people who lacked the technical expertise,” he said.About a year ago, Mine Site switched distributors in the United States and opened an office in St. Louis to make sure it could provide better support to U.S. clients, Kent said.Kent acknowledged that PEDs are susceptible to destruction in mine explosions and fires, but such risks are even greater with conventional communications systems like telephones, which are linked by cables, he said. When connections to the receiving antennae are disrupted, Mine Site can set up temporary above-ground receivers to re-establish communications, he said.While Mine Site can produce PEDs “fairly fast,” it would likely take about a year to install the systems and train miners in their use, Kent said.Mine Site has three manufacturing plants in Australia, and it is considering building one in the Eastern United States. West Virginia is a potential site, but it’s too early to speculate, Kent said.(He said he had not been contacted by anyone from West Virginia’s Development Office regarding the possibility; the Development Office did not return calls for comment.)The company also makes a tracking product called the Tracker Tagging System, consisting of a cell-phone-size device that transmits signals over UHF frequency to a central computer. Its range is 300 to 400 feet from “beacon” receivers placed throughout mines.Though used only in Australian mines now, Mine Site’s tracker is the only one approved by MSHA.“We have no experience at all with underground tracking systems,” said the National Mining Association’s Watzman. “We’re starting from scratch on that one.”One alternative to Mine Site’s products involves installing a system of fiber-optic cables throughout a mine, creating an ethernet network on which two-way text-messaging devices, tracking bugs and gas-detection alarm systems would then operate seamlessly.The Canadian company Northern Light Digital, in Toronto, is one of several that has successfully installed such systems in hard-rock mines.But no one has done it in coal mines yet, nor has anyone won MSHA approval to do so. Because of the presence of flammable methane gas in coal mines, the machinery has to operate extra coolly, so that it could never generate enough heat to ignite the gas.Northern Light is working as fast as it can to gain MSHA approval and expects to have worked out all the issues within six months, said James Hackwood, vice president for sales. The company is the only one focused on building ethernet networks for coal mines, he said, and it would be capable of supplying all the state’s mines with its current facilities. “If the demand were there, we would certainly ramp up production,” he said.The market for emergency-breathing apparatuses is more developed, though it still appears to be months away from the production capacity implied by West Virginia’s new rules.Three companies — CSE Corp. of Monroe, Pa.; Ocenco Inc. of Pleasant Prairie, Wis.; and German-owned Drager Safety, with U.S. offices in Pittsburgh — supply practically all the coal industry’s individual breathing devices, known as self-contained self-rescuer devices.As with any industry, it will take some time — “probably a matter of months” — to speed up production, said Wes Kenneweg, president of Drager.While none of the companies would disclose its current capacity, Watzman estimated that the three companies altogether are now making about 8,000 to 9,000 units per month. Each costs around $650.“We fully expect to meet any demand,” said Scott Shearer, CSE’s president. But it’s too early to know exactly how big the demand will be, he said.Neither Shearer nor Kenneweg said he expected to need to build new facilities in order to cope with the extra business. Ocenco representatives could not be reached for comment.Once West Virginia’s demand is met, other mining states may well enact similar standards, further pressuring these companies’ production capacity.“Just under West Virginia’s emerging rules, you should expect considerable lag time,” Watzman said. “There are still so many questions that need to be answered.”Watzman’s group is organizing an expert panel — headed by R. Larry Grayson, chairman and professor of mining at the University of Missouri-Rolla — to survey the available mine-safety technology and make recommendations on how the industry should respond. It’s expected to issue preliminary recommendations by July 1, followed by a final report at the end of the year. The rest of the members will probably be announced by the end of this week, Watzman said.“We just don’t know what’s out there,” said Watzman. “We’re challenged by this — everyone is exploring what is available in the market.”Staff writer Ken Ward Jr. contributed to this report.To contact staff writer Joe Morris, use e-mail or call 348-5179.