After an explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch mine last year, an independent investigative panel laid part of the blame to outmoded safety technology.
“[Twenty-first] century coal mine safety practices have failed to keep pace with 21st century coal mine production practices,” the group said. “Improved technology is required to ensure that the lives of miners are safeguarded.”
But while new technology is available, getting it into the hands of miners isn't always easy.
In May 2011, Thermo Fisher Scientific, which makes high-tech equipment for science labs, announced a new personal monitoring device for underground miners, the PDM 3600. In development for more than a decade, the monitor displays a miner's coal- dust exposure in real time and tracks exposure levels over an entire shift. Continuous exposure to high levels of coal dust can cause black lung disease, a potentially fatal malady that is on the rise in the Appalachian coalfields.
The device, which weighs six pounds and costs $13,000, addresses a shortfall in the current system. Miners now wear a monitor for several shifts every few months and then mail the filters to a lab. The results aren't available for several weeks. In the interim, miners could inhale high levels of coal dust.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) wants to require all underground miners to use a personal monitoring device similar to the PDM 3600. But industry groups are resisting. They argue that regulators might try to use information from such devices to monitor companies' compliance with government coal-dust standards. The devices are not reliable enough for that purposes, company advocates argue.
“There are questions that remain as to whether or not the device has been tested adequately and whether its current configuration makes it ready for prime-time use as a compliance sampling tool,” said Bruce Watzman, vice president of safety, health and human resources for the National Mining Association.
Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, says the labor union supports the technology's development but worries that miners who show high exposure readings might be moved to lower-paying jobs. “As a piece of technology we're in favor of it,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “We think it's going to save miners' lives.” But, he said in a subsequent radio interview, “We want to make sure that as miners may need to be moved around in the mine because of exposure to coal dust, there's no financial detriment that occurs to them.”
Other mine-safety technology also faces obstacles. After the Sago Mine disaster, Congress passed the MINER Act of 2006, requiring in part that by June 15, 2011, all underground miners carry a two-way communication device and a personal tracker that can be used to locate them in an emergency.
But as of this April, five years after the law's passage, only 36 percent of the nation's 529 underground coal mines had complied with the rule. The delay is blamed partly on politics and MSHA's lengthy process of developing standards for equipment and communications infrastructure. Moreover, safety experts say mining companies are reluctant to invest in new equipment only to find that requirements have changed.
In the final days of the George W. Bush administration in early 2009, MSHA ruled that “fully wireless communications technology is not sufficiently developed at this time,” a decision that allowed the mining industry to avoid installing new devices. But in December 2010, MSHA ruled that current technology is advanced enough to meet the MINER Act's requirements. MSHA set a June 15, 2011, deadline for compliance, but it remains unclear how many mining companies have yet to comply or what sanctions, if any, MSHA might impose against them. MSHA did not respond to a request for comment on the issue.
For miners, better technology can spell the difference between life and death.
Randal McCloy Jr., sole survivor of the 2006 Sago Mine disaster, here with his wife Anna, attends the signing of sweeping mine-safety legislation by President George W. Bush (AFP/Getty Images/Karen Bleier)
Randal McCloy Jr., the sole survivor among 13 trapped miners in the 2006 Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia, wrote a letter soon after the disaster to the families of those who perished, describing the group's efforts to get help. “We attempted to signal our location to the surface by beating on the mine bolts and plates,” he said. “We found a sledgehammer, and for a long time, we took turns pounding away. We had to take off the rescuers [emergency breathing apparatus] in order to hammer as hard as we could. This effort caused us to breathe much harder. We never heard a responsive blast or shot from the surface.”
— Daniel McGlynn