While 13 West Virginia coal miners were trapped inside the Sago Mine last month, three Tasmanian miners were saved from a fire by an 8-by-5-foot steel box.Last week, 72 miners in Saskatchewan were rescued after being trapped underground for 30 hours, thanks to a similar box called a mine rescue chamber.While waiting for rescuers, miners played checkers with washers on a board they drew on the back of a map.All kinds of mines around the world use various types of airtight, reinforced boxes — stocked with food, water and oxygen supplies — to protect miners who become trapped underground.
Why don’t miners in the United States have rescue chambers to help them survive fires and explosions?Since late 1969, federal coal mine safety laws have allowed regulators to require mine operators to install these chambers. But for more than 36 years, government officials charged with enforcing that law have not used that authority.The U.S. Department of Interior, which enforced mine safety rules until 1977, studied the issue but never took action.The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, created in 1977, has done nothing to implement the rescue chamber law in the coal industry. MSHA never wrote industry-wide rules to require rescue chambers. Agency officials haven’t pressed individual coal companies to install the chambers.“To me, it’s sort of a stunning revelation that something that could have saved these lives has been in the law for 36 years, and has never been used,” said Tony Oppegard, the former chief prosecutor for Kentucky’s mine safety agency and an MSHA adviser during the Clinton administration. “It’s difficult to explain and it’s difficult to understand why.”Over the past two weeks, MSHA officials have not responded to requests for an explanation of the agency’s inaction on the rescue chamber law.The legacy of FarmingtonOn Nov. 20, 1968, a huge explosion ripped through Consolidation Coal Co.’s No. 9 Mine near Farmington, Marion County. A fire spread rapidly and numerous follow-up explosions roared through the mine.Within a few hours, 21 miners struggled to the surface. Seventy-eight others remained missing.Rescue efforts continued for more than a week, but gas readings showed that the mine could not support life. To starve the raging fires of oxygen, all the mine entrances were sealed. Attempts to recover the bodies of missing miners continued for nearly 10 years. Fifty-nine of the victims’ bodies were recovered, but 19 remain entombed in the Farmington mine.About a year later, on Dec. 30, 1969, Congress passed the landmark Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.
Among the many reforms, lawmakers included language about rescue chambers — a device they felt might help save miners like those who died at Farmington.The law gave federal regulators the authority to “prescribe in any coal mine that rescue chambers, properly sealed and ventilated, be erected at suitable locations in the mine to which persons may go in case of emergency for protection against hazards.“Such chambers shall be properly equipped with first-aid materials, and adequate supply of air and self-contained breathing equipment, an independent communications system to the surface, and proper accommodations for the persons while awaiting rescue,” the law said.Lawmakers did not specifically mandate that regulators force operators to install rescue chambers. But in its report on the 1969 law, a House committee made its expectations clear. Committee members noted that the National Academy of Engineering was performing a study “to determine improved means of survival and rescue after mine accidents.“The committee expects the Secretary to promptly institute requirements for rescue chambers in mines if the study concludes such rescue chambers are indeed an effective method of insuring survival after a mine accident,” the House committee said in its report.
A landmark report
In March 1970, the National Academy of Engineering issued its final report from that study.Academy experts noted that miners who are unable to immediately escape mine fires or explosions are trained to “isolate themselves from toxic gases and smoke by erecting barricades of brattice cloth or wood framing.”Between 1950 and 1970, the report said, 62 miners were rescued from behind such barricades. During the same period, 27 miners died behind “inadequately constructed barricades.”The engineering academy said that rescue chambers would be a better alternative. Miners could hold out in the chambers, waiting for rescue. Chambers also could “serve as way stations for miners escaping from the mine to rest, replace or replenish emergency breathing devices, and communicate with the surface.”At about the same time the academy study was published, the Interior Department wrote rules to require rescue chambers in the nation’s metal and nonmetal mines.The agency wrote those rules under a different law, the Federal Metal and Nonmetallic Mine Safety Act of 1966. Regulation of coal mines and coal mines was combined by Congress in 1977 through a new Federal Mine Safety and Health Act.Today, rules that require rescue chambers in the nation’s metal and nonmetal mines remain on the books. Under the rules, a rescue chamber — called a “refuge area” in the rules — must be provided for every miner who cannot reach the surface from his working place within an hour through at least two different routes. Miners must be able to reach these refuge areas within 30 minutes.Refuge areas must be made of fire-resistant materials and be large enough to accommodate the number of miners working in the area. They also must be airtight, to keep out dangerous gases, and provided with compressed-air lines and water lines, according to the rules.No such rules have ever been written concerning rescue chambers in coal mines.
‘Miners’ crematorium’Not everyone thinks putting rescue chambers in coal mines is such a great idea.Rob McGee of the United States Mine Rescue Association, worries that rescue chambers would become a “miners’ crematorium” during a coal mine fire. Comparing the rescue chambers in the recent Australian and Canadian fires is “literally apples versus oranges,” McGee said in an e-mail message.The Australian fire was in a nickel mine. The Canadian mine produced potash, or potassium chloride, used in fertilizer.Coal mine fires can be much more dangerous. Coal dust and methane — not to mention highly combustible coal seams — create the danger of follow-up explosions and quickly spreading flames.“When surrounded by fuel, no safe place exists in a coal mine for a rescue chamber,” McGee said.Another concern about rescue chambers in coal mines is whether they could be easily moved as a mine progresses.In metal and nonmetal mines, mining often takes place in the same general area over the course of years. But in coal mines, workers and equipment move rapidly, following the path of the coal seam they are digging.In its 1970 report, the National Academy of Engineering addressed the concern about follow-up explosions and the need to move refuge chambers as a coal mine progresses.Chambers could be made with metal bulkheads and doors, the report said.“The bulkhead could be anchored by roof bolts into the roof and floor,” the report said. “It would be made in sections that could be easily moved as mining sections are opened and closed.”Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said his group has not yet openly supported a rescue chamber requirement. Hamilton said operators have concerns about whether they work, but that he believes the recent accidents will push the industry to find answers to any technological hurdles.“In concept, the chambers provide some additional protection, there’s no question about it,” Hamilton said last week. “As we move forward, and really engage the ingenuity of the mining industry, we’ll find a number of ways to provide safe haven in mine emergencies.”Larry Grayson, a mining engineering professor at the University of Missouri-Rolla, is chairman of a National Mining Association committee to investigate new rescue techniques following the Sago Disaster. In an interview last week, Grayson said the rescue chambers can and should be used in the nation’s underground coal mines.“We’ve got to increase the odds for escape up to a very high level,” Grayson said. “The refuge chambers do exist, and they can be used.”In a commentary published Jan. 12 in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Grayson wrote that, “A portable refuge station, which is usually skid-mounted and kept close to the production area, could have saved the lives of the trapped miners at Sago.”‘They’re pretty sturdy’Draeger Safety Inc., a German-based firm with offices in Pittsburgh, is one of a handful of companies that make mine rescue chambers. Wes Kenneweg, Draeger’s North American president, said the chambers are custom-built to hold anywhere from five to 30 people. They cost between $80,000 and $200,000.Kenneweg says the company offers chambers that can work in coal mines.“Can we do it? Yes,” Kenneweg said last week. “They’re pretty sturdy.”Another company, Allentown, Pa.-based ChemBio Shelter Inc., is promoting an inflatable toxic-gas shelter it makes as an alternative to protect miners from carbon monoxide poisoning after an underground fire.In its 1970 report, the National Academy of Engineering agreed that such a system might work.“Inflatable bulkheads would be more portable than metal and, if inflation is rapid enough, can be left deflated until actually needed,” the report said. “Their more complex construction would make them higher priced.”Under pressureUnder pressure since the Sago disaster, MSHA on Jan. 25 announced that it will investigate various mine rescue improvements, including the use of refuge chambers. The agency asked for public comments on whether such chambers should be required for coal mines, what type of chambers would work, how they could be equipped and where they should be located.West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin did not include a rescue chamber requirement in his mine rescue legislation, which passed last month. Members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation did not include such a requirement in the national legislation they proposed last week.During a Senate confirmation hearing last week, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., talked about the rescue of the Canadian miners from the K2 Mine near Esterhazy, Saskatchewan. Kennedy asked Richard Stickler, President Bush’s nominee to be the next MSHA director, if he would push to implement the 1969 law on mine rescue chambers.Stickler declined to promise to act, but said there might be some mines where rescue chambers would work. “There are applications where I think it would be applicable,” Stickler said.Kennedy said, “Given the act, shouldn’t we move ahead with this? How can they do it in Canada, and we can’t do it here?”