Mines weigh state, federal rules for emergency communications
October 1, 2007
WHEELING -- Everyone from owners to regulators wants improved communications in underground coal mines, but nearly two years after the Sago mine tragedy, there's little consensus on the best way to proceed. In particular, mine owners are worried about having to meet two standards for new equipment and procedures -- one set by the state, and one by the federal government.
"West Virginia took a lead role in pushing legislation toward enhanced communication systems but may ultimately be penalized,'' said Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association.
West Virginia's plan for enhanced mine safety includes emergency shelters, daily inspection of air supplies and wireless communication and tracking devices capable of two-way communication.
As it's plan is based on current technology, the state expects mines to be in compliance by the end of 2008.
But a separate federal law is aimed at producing wireless technology enabling miners trapped after an explosion or other disaster to communicate with people on the surface.
That technology is currently being researched by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. That plan is scheduled to take effect in June 2009.
Mine owners are worried that, having complied with new state regulations, they'll have to spend millions to meet federal standards. Hamilton said it's possible mines in the state would need two systems, one meeting state standards and one for federal requirements.
"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.
NIOSH spokesman Jeff Kohler said the institute wants to develop technology that works with plans states already have in place, but the final decisions about what rules take precedent will likely be made by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
"The question is, will (MSHA) accept what states like West Virginia have enacted?'' he said.