Thursday, August 30, 2007

Air Pack Thefts Concern Mine Industry

Air Pack Thefts Concern Mine Industry

Thursday August 30, 9:33 am ET

By Tim Huber, Associated Press Writer

Mine Industry Concerned About Rise in Emergency Air Pack Thefts;Required to Be Kept Unlocked

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- Underground coal miners are facing a newand apparently growing safety threat: the theft of emergency airpacks.Authorities say the devices have been disappearing from mines,particularly in West Virginia, the nation's largest producer ofunderground coal.Government regulations have forced the industry to store tens ofthousands of extra air packs in unlocked, unguarded boxesunderground so they will be readily accessible to escaping miners inan emergency.
The thefts come at a time when manufacturing backlogs have created adesperately short supply of air packs, or self-contained self-rescuers. Mine operators have taken delivery of 86,000 air packs andare awaiting 100,000 more to meet government mandates adopted afterthe Sago Mine explosion and other deadly disasters.
Authorities say it's tough to quantify the extent of the problem,but the thefts appear to be growing.Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy Co., the nation's fourth-largestproducer by revenue, says it has lost at least 100 to 200 air packs.Other West Virginia coal companies say they have lost smallerquantities of the devices, which sell for more than $800 each, andKentucky mines have reported scattered thefts as well."That's a lot, especially at the cost of each one of them,"
Masseyspokesman Jeff Gillenwater said. "It's a noticeable problem."One West Virginia mine operator reported 30 stolen air packs thismonth and Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy reports losing about 10 permonth, said Randy Harris, engineering adviser for the state Officeof Miners' Health, Safety and Training.Authorities do not know who is stealing the air packs or why, butHarris suspects at least some are being sold to mine operators orcontractors."Most likely the market is out of state for the big
quantities,"said Harris, who bought one for $25 at a yard sale six months agothat he used during performance testing.
He recently found anotherat an antique store in Oak Hill.West Virginia made it a felony last year to steal an air pack, yetthe devices continue to disappear."Sooner or later somebody's going to show up at a cache in anemergency and it'll be empty," Harris said. "That's why we made it afelony in the first place."Jim Kiser of Greenbrier Smokeless Coal, which lost 21 new air packsin a single theft, said the company has stepped up security,recorded serial numbers and is checking caches weekly."We constantly have a few things disappear," he said.
"We've putevery control we know to mankind in place to hold onto them."Yet air packs still disappear occasionally, often in the hands of aformer employee who takes a job at another mine, Kiser said. Inresponse, Greenbrier is making sure everyone knows it's a felony tosteal an air pack.
Massey is considering alarms and easily torn plastic ties on storageboxes, but Gillenwater, like others, hopes there will be fewerthefts becuase of a new Web site,, thatlists the serial numbers of dozens of missing air packs."We think, quite honestly, that it's a good thing the industry isdoing it themselves," Harris said. "That may be a very viablesolution."The leading air pack manufacturer, Monroeville, Pa.-based CSE Corp.,is adding security detectors.
CSE controls about 60 percent of theU.S. market."We have working models now, prototypes, and we'll be displayingthat to the industry shortly, within a matter of months," companypresident Scott Shearer said.