Little Improvement Two Years After Sago
Wheeling Intelligencer - Wheeling,WV,
September 30, 2007
WHEELING — When it comes to new coal mine safety regulations, the state of West Virginia and the federal government may not be on the same page.
It’s been nearly two years since the Sago mine tragedy, and there has been little improvement in underground mine communications. State government officials in Charleston are pushing to have a Legislature-mandated miner tracking program in place by late 2008 while the feds are aiming for June 15, 2009, to implement regulations that may or may not be more stringent than those in West Virginia.
At issue, according to West Virginia Coal Association Senior Vice President Chris Hamilton, is whether Mountain State coal operators will have to comply with the state regulations in addition to the yet-to-be-defined federal rules. If they are, it could cost mine operators millions of additional dollars.
“West Virginia took a lead role in pushing legislation toward enhanced communication systems but may ultimately be penalized,” Hamilton said.
Spurred by the Jan. 19, 2006, deadly Sago Mine disaster, Gov. Joe Manchin urged the state Legislature to enact new mine safety regulations and on Feb. 7, 2006, provisions of those regulations were announced.
They included establishment of emergency shelters within 1,000 feet of where miners are working, daily inspection of air supplies, installation of emergency air supplies equal to 30 minutes of walking time, wireless communication and tracking devices capable of two-way communication.
Enforcement by the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training is to tentatively begin by the end of 2008.
At the same time, the federal government initiated the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act of 2006, signed into law on June 15, 2006, by President Bush.
The new federal standards are mandated to be in force by June 2009 under the eye of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration.
In addition to beefed up emergency air supply regulations, the MINER Act calls for a plan of “post accident communication between underground and surface personnel via a wireless, two-way medium, and provide for an electronic tracking system permitting surface personnel to determine the location of any persons trapped underground.”
The original implementation schedule for the state regulations called for mine operators to submit compliance plans by July. That deadline was moved to Sept. 21 after plans sent in by 202 coal operators failed to satisfy the safety criteria.
Terry Farley, an administrator of the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Health, Safety and Training, said all coal operators met the September deadline.
“We will be meeting with mine operators to review and, hopefully, approve the plans,” Farley said. “Within 15 days of final approval, the operators will be required to submit a purchase order with a vendor who will install the communication and tracking systems.”
Farley said the proposals must include a target date for completion.
While the state regulations are based upon current technology, a new federal plan is on hold pending results of a study being conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
Armed with a $10 million emergency Congressional supplemental appropriation grant, NIOSH is conducting research to find the most technologically feasible way to provide two-way wireless communications from the surface with miners trapped underground after a collapse or explosion.
NIOSH spokesman Jeff Kohler said many of today’s communication systems are good for routine daily use but may not work during an explosion event.
Two systems, one called a leaky feeder system and one called a wireless mesh system, are among plans being considered.
Kohler said that with the leaky feeder system, a miner can talk through a hand-held wireless device but the signal is transmitted through a wire that runs throughout the mine. If the trunk wire is severed by an explosion or collapse, the system will fail.
With a wireless mesh system, according to Kohler, the hand-held unit communicates to a series of individual transmission points. If a disaster takes out one or more of the transmission points, the signal is directed to the remaining points.
In addition to being functional, MSHA requires that wireless devices must be “intrinsically safe,” which means the product cannot create enough energy to ignite methane gas.
Kohler said NIOSH is interested in developing technologies that can be added to a state-mandated system that may already be in place.
“The question is,” Kohler said, “will (MSHA) accept what states like West Virginia have enacted?”
Farley said the state plans being considered primarily are leaky feeder systems.
Hamilton said there is no guarantee MSHA will approved the state plan.
“The leaky feeder system depends upon a main trunk line and the wireless mesh system has a chance to heal itself, but the ultimate answer is Through the Earth (TTE) technology,” Hamilton said.
He said TTE technology “is a long way from being perfected for daily use.”
He also explained no single system may be suitable for all mines.
“Because of differences in geology, how deep the mines are and other factors, not all communication systems will work in all mines,” Hamilton said.
The projected cost of the systems will be from $500,000 to $2 million per mine.
Hamilton said it is possible West Virginia mine operators could be forced to have two systems, one which meets state standards and one for federal rules.
“We are hoping West Virginia mines can be grandfathered in under the new federal regulations or that they be declared to be test or pilot projects,” he said.
Hamilton said West Virginia mines are more safe today then they were prior to the Sago disaster.
“We have shored up safety shelters and air chambers and we have 30 additional mine rescue teams trained,” he said. “All miners have gone through extensive mine rescue and emergency procedures.”
According to Hamilton, miners’ safety is not the only benefit associated with wireless communications underground.
“It will improve operations significantly,” he said. “Overall efficiency will be increased with wireless controls on some mining equipment.