Mine rescue gear makers from around the world paraded their wares before federal lawmakers in Washington, D.C., Wednesday.Larry Droppleman of Wisconsin-based Ocenco Corp. showed off his company’s advanced breathing devices.Wes Kenneweg of the German company Draeger Industries touted his firm’s emergency rescue chambers.Gary Zemel of Mine Site Technologies Inc. demonstrated the pagers that his company has installed in Australian mines.“Why was this not in the Sago Mine?” asked Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “It appears to me that we had plenty of technology out there that could have made a difference.”Murray and other members of a Senate Employment and Workplace Safety subcommittee heard from mine equipment companies, rescue experts and labor officials during Wednesday’s hearing.Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., scheduled the roundtable discussion so lawmakers could learn more about modern mine rescue equipment.The Wednesday event was the latest in a series of congressional hearings following the Sago Mine disaster and the deaths of seven other workers in U.S. mines so far this year.“At the Sago incident in particular, it was quite clear that technology for better communications from the surface to the mine quite possibly could have saved lives,” Isakson said. “It was also clear that accessibility to more than one hour’s oxygen also could have saved lives.”
Committee members asked the nation’s main mining research agency, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, to provide information at Wednesday’s hearing.Jeffrey Kohler, director of NIOSH’s mining program, was scheduled to testify.But when Kohler’s bosses at the Department of Health and Human Services learned he would be on a panel with non-government witnesses, they ordered him not to take part.Bill Hall, director of the DHHS press office, said the agency wants to avoid its officials debating non-government witnesses during a congressional hearing.“We want to make sure that there is an opportunity for open debate with members of Congress, and that there is no possibility for a debate situation to open up that would be counter-productive,” Hall said.
Kohler attended Wednesday’s hearing, and was available to answer questions, Hall said.
During the hearing, lawmakers learned that many mine rescue advances have long been available, and are used in other countries.In the United States, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has not required new communications devices, rescue chambers or additional oxygen supplies. Absent a legal mandate, the nation’s coal industry has generally not installed such equipment.“We’ve gone a long way on production, but we’ve been stagnant on safety technology,” said Dennis O’Dell, chief safety officer for the United Mine Workers union.For example, the 1969 federal mine safety act allows MSHA to require rescue chambers — complete with oxygen supplies, food and communications systems — in underground coal mines. MSHA has never used that authority.“You can get them or construct them yourself out of the coal seam,” said Larry Grayson, a mining professor who is heading a National Mining Association review of rescue equipment.“We could establish refuge stations and have 40 hours or more of oxygen,” Grayson said. “There is nothing that mandates it. And because it hasn’t been mandated, it just wasn’t pursued in the past.”
Droppleman, whose company is one of the major manufacturers of emergency breathing devices for miners, said putting additional oxygen into mines is the most important step regulators can take.“The fundamental problem for the guys who are underground today is that we don’t give them enough oxygen to get them out of the mine,” Droppleman said.Currently, MSHA requires operators to provide every mine with a one-hour supply of emergency oxygen.In West Virginia, Gov. Joe Manchin has pushed through legislation to require additional caches of self-rescue breathing devices throughout underground mines.In Washington, MSHA announced plans to require additional oxygen after West Virginia’s congressional delegation introduced legislation to require such a move.“In the event of a fire or explosion, we have one objective if we survived the initial incident,” Droppleman said. “We want to be outside. The regulations should recognize that, and support efforts on the part of mines to protect the worker from where he is in the mine to the outside.”To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.