Federal regulators said Thursday their tests of new communications devices for underground coal mines had produced “promising” results.In at least one test, a prototype radio delivered cell-phone quality voice communications more than two miles into an underground mine, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said.MSHA posted a preliminary report on its testing on its Web site, and issued a statement summarizing the findings.“MSHA’s tests of wireless, two-way communications systems have yielded promising results thus far,” said David Dye, acting assistant labor secretary for MSHA.
Dye’s agency released its testing information one day after Congress approved legislation that supporters say will force mine operators to install new communications equipment that would help rescue miners trapped underground.Buried in that bill approved Wednesday is a provision that could allow mining companies to get around that requirement.Under the bill, mine operators have 60 days to submit new “response and preparedness” plans for mine emergencies. Within three years, those plans must be updated to include two-way communications equipment that can withstand a major explosion.But mine operators could provide MSHA with a statement to “set forth the reasons” that the communications equipment “cannot be adopted” at their mines.Companies that take this route must then explain an “alternative means of compliance.”The bill says that alternatives must “approximate, as closely as possible, the degree of functional utility and safety protection provided by the wireless two-way medium and tracking system.”By Thursday morning, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., had activated a recorded telephone call to constituents that touted her work in passing the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response, or MINER, Act.Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., called the bill’s passage a “truly historic moment for our miners, their families and the mining industry as a whole.”At the White House, President Bush said the bill shows that, “America’s miners and their families can be confident that their government is committed to taking measures that will help prevent accidents and save lives.”The legislation (S. 2803) was agreed to by the coal industry and the United Mine Workers as a congressional response to the Sago Mine disaster, the Aracoma Mine fire and the disaster at the Darby Mine in Kentucky. But the final language was significantly weaker than a bill originally proposed by West Virginia’s congressional delegation after Sago and Aracoma.Rep. George Miller, a Californian and ranking Democrat on a key labor committee, had tried to block passage in the House to force amendments to strengthen the bill.
In a floor speech Wednesday, Miller repeated his concerns that the legislation was not strong enough, and said families of miners killed in this year’s disasters deserve better.“This bill is insufficient,” Miller said. “I cannot, in good conscience, say that it does right by these families.”Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., supported the bill, but said it should not be considered a “cure-all.”“It is not a perfect bill,” Rahall said. “But it is a step in the right direction.”Calls for improving underground communication began immediately after Sago, where 11 miners died before rescuers could reach them 40 hours after an explosion.Similar calls came after 13 miners died in a series of explosions in an Alabama mine in September 2001.
At the time, MSHA had praised an Australian-made text-messaging device that helped save miners in two underground fires in Utah. But the agency refused to require those devices, saying that something better might come along.In congressional hearings after Sago, Dye dismissed the text-messaging equipment because of unspecified “reliability issues.”When it published an emergency rule to improve mine rescue efforts, MSHA declined to require any improved communications devices.Among other criticisms, MSHA noted that the Personal Emergency Devices, or PEDs, allowed only one-way communications from the surface to miners underground. At the Willow Creek Mine in Utah, that was enough to allow mine managers to alert miners to evacuate because of a fire. At Sago, it might have been enough to allow rescuers to direct the trapped workers to simply walk out of the mine.In the preliminary report released Thursday, MSHA outlined the results of tests of six communications or tracking systems, all but one of which is a prototype.MSHA especially praised a low-frequency radio that sent two-way text messages at depths of 558 and 631 feet underground. Tested at CONSOL Energy’s Enlow Fork Mine in Western Pennsylvania, the system also transmitted cell-phone quality voice signals for more than two miles in a mine tunnel, MSHA said.“We are hopeful that the systems being tested will provide long-sought solutions to the daunting challenge of communicating miles into the earth to help miners safely evacuate during an emergency,” Dye said in a prepared statement.On the web: The MSHA results report is available at www.msha.gov/techsupp/pedlocatingdevices.asp#consol.Staff writer Ken Ward Jr.’s continued reporting on mine safety is being supported by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. To contact Ward, use e-mail or call 348-1702.