Monday, January 30, 2006
Why the Coal Miners Didn't Have to Die 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
Esterhazy Mine, SaskatchewanUPDATE: Two more miners have died in West Virginia; one in a shaft collapse, the other in a strip mine gas fire. In addition, a group of workers was evacuated from yet another mine following a safety inspection that revealed carbon monoxide levels five times higher than permitted by OSHA. In light of the recent spate of incidents, West Virginia governor Joe Manchin has called for a industry stand-down to allow a major safety inspection and overhaul. Yes, accidents do happen; but four deadly occurrences in as many weeks speaks to something being very wrong under the current system.

High-profile U.S. mining disasters have made headlines recently, but a similar incident this weekend in Esterhazy, Saskatchewan involving 70 miners ended very differently. According to news reports, all the Canadian miners survived primarily because the mines were equipped with refuge stations, which can be used as sealed shelters in case of fire or explosion. These stations contain food, water, and most importantly, 24 to 36 hours' worth of oxygen. Canada is one of many nations that mandate the use of mining safety measures like refuge stations. Inexplicably, the U.S. does not. Professors Derek Apel and Larry Grayson of University of Missouri-Rolla point out these international discrepancies in an editorial piece for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
While other nations have seen a significant drop in the fatality rate of underground coal miners in recent years, the United Sates has seen a 15-percent increase between 1998-2000 and 2001-2003. The recent Sago Mine accident in West Virginia, in which 12 miners lost their lives, now brings this disparity in safety performances into scrutiny and prompts the question: Why doesn't the United States lead the world in mining safety?

Other mining-rich areas of the world, such as New South Wales in Australia, have aggressively pursued new regulations while also creating industry-government partnerships for funded research aimed at better analyzing mine-monitoring information and developing automated mining processes. In the United States, however, similar research was abandoned with the elimination of the U.S. Bureau of Mines nearly a decade ago.
Government and industry in the United States would do well to follow the examples of some other countries by implementing some or all of the following measures. They could have made the difference between life and death for the Sago miners. At the very least, they could have increased their chances of survival. [read full article]
Apel and Grayson detail several measures used in Britain, Australia and Canada - nations, which like the U.S., rely heavily on mining for energy - such as two-exit-per-shaft minimums, refuge and tracking stations (including portable stations that can be transported as work areas shift), and portable explosion barriers that help reduce danger to workers in case of a blast.

Davitt McAteer, former assistant secretary for mine safety and health for the Department of Labor spoke with National Public Radio January 4th, shortly after the Sago disaster. McAteer seems completely unaware of the safety technologies available north of the border, claiming that the one-hour personal oxygen tanks in use in mines like Sago are "the best [technology] we have right now":
NPR: As part of their safety training, underground miners are required to carry self-rescue kits. What are they and how do they work?

McAteer: They're called Self-Contained Self-Rescuer units, or SCSRs, and they come in two types: oxygen bottles and canisters. Those devices give you an hour's worth of protection, which is meant to be enough for you to get to a place where there's fresh air. The SCSRs aren't ideal, but lives have certainly been saved since they became required equipment.

NPR: An hour of oxygen doesn't seem like much when miners are sometimes trapped for days, like the miners in the Sago mine accident. Do the SCSRs offer enough protection?

McAteer: Well, they're the best we've got right now. There's been a lot of innovation in the industry, but it's mostly been on the production side.
Clearly not true; "You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie." Contrary to McAteer's assertions, better safety technology is available now, and if we took advantage of it we would have fewer scenes of heartbreak like the ones we saw the day those miners scrawled their dying words to loved ones, deep beneath the West Virginia soil.

Corporations may cite tight profit margins and grouse at the cost of implementing new equipment, but as our country returns increasingly to energy sources like coal, we owe American workers and their families the basic level of safety miners in other nations count on. The initial blast at Sago may have been an accident, but the subsequent 12 deaths by carbon monoxide poisoning were an avoidable tragedy. After seeing those Esterhazy miners' grateful faces emerge from underground, I challenge the American mining industry to tell the Sago families that it's just too expensive to implement safety devices that would have brought their sons, brothers, and fathers home alive.