WHEELING — Mine safety experts from around the world flocked to West Virginia Thursday to brainstorm about ways to rescue coal miners trapped underground by fires or explosions.Coal operators and lobbyists joined with mining engineers, regulators and academics for the two-day International Mining Health and Safety Symposium on the campus of Wheeling Jesuit University.Former federal mine safety chief Davitt McAteer, a Wheeling Jesuit vice president, noted that 18 coal miners have already died on the job this year in West Virginia, including the 12 who perished in the Sago Mine disaster and two that died in the Aracoma Alma No.1 Mine fire.“That is an unacceptable number and an unacceptable position for us to be in,” McAteer said in opening the conference.
“Even if you remove the Sago disaster, the numbers are trending up,” McAteer added. “The numbers are against us.”McAteer organized this week’s symposium after the Sago and Aracoma tragedies, to draw attention to advanced mine rescue equipment and techniques that the nation’s coal industry has been slow to adopt.The Rev. Joseph Hacala, president of Wheeling Jesuit, said that he hoped the symposium would lead various coal industry stakeholders to work together “in a way that is safer and healthier for all of us.”On Thursday, conference participants heard from political leaders including Gov. Joe Manchin and Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., and then bused to downtown Wheeling to tour exhibits of mine rescue equipment at the WesBanco Arena.Mollohan said that he and members of the West Virginia congressional delegation are working to require the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration to update its various mine rescue requirements.“Vigilance has been slipping in recent years,” Mollohan said. “There has been some undermining of the federal coal mine safety and health act in recent years.”During an afternoon panel discussion, acting deputy MSHA chief Bob Friend said that the four mine communications devices his agency has so far tested “showed great promise,” and that two others remain to be tested.In the wake of Sago — where 11 of the 12 miners who died perished before rescue teams could reach them 40 hours after an early morning disaster — mine safety advocates are asking why MSHA has not required better communications equipment or miner tracking devices that would help locate trapped workers underground.“There are shadow areas where the communications didn’t work, not all of the time,” Friend said of the devices MSHA tested. “But as Davitt said, our cell phones don’t work all of the time.”The symposium continues today, when the scheduled events include several panels featuring mine rescue experts from other countries.One of those speakers, Christo De Kerk, said in an interview Thursday that his country, South Africa, requires rescue chambers in all underground coal mines. In the event of accidents, miners can use emergency oxygen to get to the chambers, and then await rescue, if they cannot immediately evacuate the mine.
De Klerk said that his Mines Rescue Services handles mine rescue across South Africa with 780 volunteers from the ranks of that nation’s working coal miners. Teams stationed around the country use standardized equipment and receive standardized training, De Klerk said.De Klerk said that high levels of carbon monoxide, like those that delayed rescue teams from entering the Sago Mine, would not have stopped his teams from going into a mine. In South Africa, De Klerk said, teams worry only about whether methane levels are within the explosive range when plotting mine rescue operations.“We will risk lives to try to save lives,” De Klerk said. “You must have confidence in your people and confidence in your equipment.”Staff writer Ken Ward Jr.’s continuing coverage of mine safety issues is being supported by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation.To contact Ward, use e-mail or call 348-1702.