Since at least 1992, federal mine safety regulators have rejected a proposal to install “lifelines” to help coal miners find their way out of smoke-filled tunnels following underground fires or explosions.Last week, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration revived the plan, after the deaths of 14 West Virginia miners in January in a major explosion and a conveyor belt fire.In the last 10 years, MSHA has twice refused to adopt specific proposals to require lifelines.Three years ago, in September 2003, MSHA officials did not consider a lifeline requirement when they rewrote the agency’s mine evacuation regulations.
Rank-and-file coal miners and the United Mine Workers union have repeatedly urged MSHA to force operators to install lifelines.“Lifelines would be very easy to install, very easily maintained and at a very low cost to the operator,” Keith Plylar, a UMW safety committee chairman in Alabama, said during a public hearing in April 2003. “I mean, you’re looking at nearly nothing but a little bit of labor. You know, a lifeline can be made out of rope.”Essentially, a lifeline is a rope — preferably made of fireproof material — attached to the wall of an underground mine tunnel.Somewhat fancier models include cones that are spaced at regular intervals along the rope’s length. If a miner’s hand slides over the cone, he is going in the right direction. If the hand is blocked by the cone, he is headed the wrong way.On its Web site, MSHA promotes these escape ropes as “innovative,” saying they “improve the chances for a safe and expeditious escape during mine emergencies.”The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that, since 2000, more than 1,300 miners who went through evacuation exercises chose lifelines as the best means to guide them to safety through smoke-filled mine passages.But for years, the idea of requiring lifelines has been intertwined with coal industry efforts to use conveyor belt tunnels as fresh-air intakes in underground mines.Many safety advocates oppose this “belt air” practice. They say that it helps fires and the toxic fumes they create to spread into working areas, endangering miners.Coal industry lobbyists have pushed MSHA for years to allow the practice. Generally, Congress outlawed belt air when lawmakers wrote the 1969 Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. Companies could use belt air only if they received a special, mine-by-mine variance from MSHA.Alma No. 1 lifelines not required by 2000 varianceOver the years, MSHA has required lifelines at least four times in return air tunnels when it approved variances to allow belt air intakes.
Agency officials did not require lifelines as part of a variance granted in August 2000 to allow belt air at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County. Last month, two miners died when they were unable to escape a Jan. 19 fire at the Aracoma operation.In 1992, a Department of Labor task force appointed to study belt air included in its recommendations a proposal to require lifelines.“Lifelines should be installed and maintained in all primary and alternate escapeways,” the task force recommended in a report published in December, just before President George H.W. Bush left office.A lifeline proposal did not surface again until 1994, when then-MSHA chief Davitt McAteer was doing a major rewrite of the agency’s underground mine ventilation rules.During hearings and a public comment period, MSHA was urged to add a lifeline requirement to the rule changes.In response, MSHA wrote, “While many of these suggestions may have merit, they are outside the scope of this rulemaking.”
During the eight-year Clinton administration, McAteer did not act to require lifelines.But, he also did not allow belt air to become legal on a widespread basis, as the industry urged.After President George W. Bush took office in January 2001, MSHA moved to allow belt air without companies needing to obtain a variance.Then-MSHA chief Dave Lauriski, a longtime coal company official, proposed a rule on the subject in January 2003.During public hearings and a comment period, UMW officials and individual miners urged MSHA to add a lifeline requirement to the rule.Ricky Parker, a member of UMW Local 2368 in Brookwood, Ala., said that he had used lifelines during fire escape training at the MSHA academy outside Beckley, W.Va.“I’ve been in smoke so thick I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face,” Parker said during an April 2003 public hearing in Birmingham, Ala.“I didn’t know which way I was going unless I had my hand on the lifeline.”Larry Kuharcik, a UMW safety committee member at CONSOL Energy’s Blacksville No. 2 Mine noted that West Virginia law requires lifelines in escapeways located in return air passages. The state’s mines have had to meet that requirement since 1978, according to the law.“We’ve been using them for several years at the Blacksville mine, and we have no problems with the lifelines, and we would like to see the lifelines as a mandatory recommendation for all coal mines,” Kuharcik said during a hearing in Washington, Pa.In written comments, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health noted that its researchers had reported on the “fire safety benefits” of lifelines in studies published in 1992 and 1993.NIOSH researcher F.N. Kissell listed the addition of lifelines as the top priority in the 1993 paper titled, “Ranking factors impacting survival during coal mine fires.”“Without lifelines, there are not many ways to gain improvement,” the paper said.‘We are totally opposed to the lifeline’Coal operators, however, were not so quick to embrace lifelines. Industry officials blasted the idea during an April 2003 public hearing in Grand Junction, Colo., according to a transcript of the testimony.“We are totally opposed to the lifeline, and I want that on the record, OK?” Jim Poulson, safety director with Skyline Mining in Scofield, Utah, told MSHA officials at the hearing. “I think that the lifelines would be extremely hard to maintain due to the fact that there is equipment going in and out and everything else.”In written comments, Joseph A. Lamonica of the Bituminous Coal Operators Association and Bruce Watzman of the National Mining Association, also opposed a lifeline requirement.“While we are cognizant of the need to provide miners with all possible tools to assist them during emergency situations, we are weary of supporting a system whose integrity is difficult to maintain during normal, let alone emergency, situations,” Lamonica and Watzman wrote.When it finalized the rule in April 2004, MSHA added language to require lifelines in return air tunnels that are used as alternate escapeways for miners — but only in mines that use conveyor belt tunnels for fresh-air intakes.MSHA said that it agreed the “lifelines can aid in escape during emergency situations, especially in instances of reduced visibility due to smoke.“In heavy smoke, a miner can easily become disoriented and cannot determine the proper direction for escape,” MSHA said. “A directional lifeline gives the miner added safety by directing the miner through the smoke-filled entries to safety.MSHA said that, by requiring lifelines only in certain situations, its rule would “minimize maintenance problems because mobile equipment is seldom operated in return air courses.“While the application of lifelines to all underground coal mines is beyond the scope of this rule, the agency believes, based on the evidence presented during the course of this rulemaking, that it is appropriate to require the limited use of lifelines in this proposal,” MSHA said.Last week, MSHA said that it plans to issue an emergency rule to require lifelines in all primary and alternate escape routes out of underground mines.“We are using the emergency temporary standard to get help into the field as fast as possible,” acting MSHA chief David G. Dye said in a news release. “MSHA is moving forward on every front to better protect miners’ safety and health.”To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.