By Tim Huber
The Associated Press
Anna McCloy, whose husband was the only person to escape the Sago Mine disaster, pressed government regulators Tuesday to uncover why survivors of a series of fatal coal mining accidents this year continue to say emergency air packs failed to work.
“There is a problem,’’ McCloy said in a statement. “We need more answers than, ‘We tested them and they worked.’ We can’t continue to send miners into the mines with a false promise that these rescuers are going to work when they need them the most.’’
Survivors, among them Randal McCloy Jr., have said that air packs failed during January’s Sago disaster and the Darby Mine No. 1 accident Saturday in Harlan County, Ky.
Workers at both mines carried the same model of air pack — the most widely used in the industry. Twelve miners died at Sago, 11 of them from carbon-monoxide poisoning, as did three of the five men killed at the Darby mine.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration maintains that air packs, also known as self-contained self-rescuers, are reliable and effective.
MSHA has disputed a report that the lone survivor of the Darby explosion said his air pack lasted only five minutes and has said that tests showed air packs recovered from Sago were activated and would have functioned properly.
However, an MSHA ventilation expert has said that tests revealed the amount of oxygen-generating chemicals used in the devices varied from 25 percent to 75 percent.
Anna McCloy said MSHA’s statements are not good enough. “Report after report has shown the rescuers did not work like they are supposed to,’’ she said.
An MSHA spokesman did not immediately respond to McCloy’s comments Tuesday.
Emergency air packs, including the model used at Sago and Darby, have a history of problems since their introduction in underground mines in 1981. Regulators have found deteriorating air hoses, excessive carbon dioxide emissions, broken seals and oxygen-generating chemicals leaking into breathing tubes, a review of MSHA and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health records show.
NIOSH said Tuesday that it has delayed two reports detailing several years of field testing of the devices. The agency said in a statement that reports on the two most recent rounds of testing have been completed, but must go through additional scientific review before they’re published.
NIOSH routinely tests all makes and models of air packs used in U.S. coal mines, including the type used at Sago and Darby. Reports on those tests generally have concluded that the majority of air packs should work in an emergency if they meet inspection criteria.
However, NIOSH also has concluded that exposure to the harsh environment of an underground coal mine tends to lower the performance of some air packs, particularly the model used at Sago and Darby.
NIOSH’s explanation rings true with mine safety consultant Joe Main, who called the agency’s personnel “honest brokers.’’
But Main says he’s deeply concerned about reports of air packs not working.
“I can tell you this, if a miner puts one of these on and it doesn’t work for the miner, it needs to get identified and fixed,’’ he said. “That statement reflects a problem that has to be run completely to the ground.’’
Main said he’s been told that some of the air packs recovered from Sago were “pretty old’’ and banged up.
“These are like eggs. They are not like ball bearings,’’ said Main, former safety director for the United Mine Workers union. “A mine environment can be rough.’’
The need for better inspections to uncover damage was one of several problems that Main says were identified in the 1990s and have never been fixed. MSHA withdrew proposed rules covering the shelf life of air packs and inspections, among other things, in September 2001.
“The federal agency that’s now investigating these is part of the problem,’’ Main said.
MSHA and state regulators have adopted new rules requiring mines to stockpile more air packs, among other things, since the Sago disaster and a second accident that killed two men at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine in West Virginia in January.
A U.S. Senate panel approved a bill last week requiring miners to have at least two hours of oxygen available. Current MSHA rules require one hour of oxygen.
The legislation also would require mines to store extra air packs along escape routes.
Stockpiling air packs without addressing problems about shelf life, use, storage and inspections won’t make mining safer, Main said. “If you don’t do that, you can just be adding more SCSRs to a problem pile.’’