Saturday, January 21, 2006

Lost In the Ground -- Part 2

Sadly, prospects look no better this morning for two West Virginia coal miners missing since Thursday evening. WCHS-TV in Charleston reports that rescue teams haven't been able to control the mine fire or locate the men.

Meanwhile, the station also has an AP report that MSHA is getting ready to come out with a formal request for input on better emergency equipment for miners and mine rescue teams.

Even though regular walkie-talkies and cell phones won't work underground, technology exists today to communicate with individual miners underground, even in an emergency that knocks out mine telephones.

For instance Mine Site Technologies, an Australian firm, developed a comunication system known as PEDS, which has proved itself in the U.S., for instance in 1998 fire Willow Creek underground coal mine in Utah.

"The mine manager ordered an evacuation using a unique system which operates like a pager and is worn by most miners. This 'PED' system (Personal Emergency Device), allows for constant contact with the miners, even those working in remote areas. After the accident, a message was sent to the miners -- 'mine fire-evacuate'. The miners were safely evacuated in about 45 minutes."

(Two miners were later killed in a series of four explosions at the same mine on July 31, 2000. In that case, the message to evacuate was not sent until three explosions had already occurred. Even so, MSHA investigators found, "The use of the PED system was instrumental in alerting miners underground of the need to evacuate. Miners working in active and remote areas of the mine at the time of the explosion were notified through the use of the PED. These miners all safely exited the mine." )

The manufacturer explains:

"The combination of ultra low frequency (ULF) and a high power transmission system enables the PED signal to propagate through several hundreds of metres of rock strata. The signal can therefore be received at any location throughout the mine with an antenna on the surface only or a small underground antenna....

"For this reason, PED is an extremely effective emergency communication system. The ability to transmit actual messages is vitally important in allowing, not only a warning to be issued, but specific information regarding the situation to be sent (such as where a fire is, which evacuation route to take, etc)."

After the Jim Walter mine explosion in 2001, MSHA issued an emergency temporary standards intended to tighten procedures in such situations. But in making the standard final, the agency rejected suggestions that it also require the PED. The agency's reasoning:

"This system is currently used at a number of U.S. underground coal mines and has also been deployed at mines in other countries....MSHA believes that the PED system is generally effective and encourages its use. However, since technology is constantly changing, newer systems that may be as, or more, effective than the PED may be developed."

Another area to look at would be self-contained self-rescuers, the devices that underhround coal miners have at hand to provide an hour's oxygen. A third might be the adequacy of methiods used to seal off worked-out areas of the mine where methane can concentrate. And unfortunately, experience shows that even with the best will in the world, a requirement for new mine technology typically takes years to wend its way through the regulatory system. More on this tomorrow.

Meanwhile, in the accidents at Sago and now Aracoma, it's important to remember there are equally urgent questions: what specific sequence of events took place, and what happened earlier to set the stage? Did MSHA do its job, did the state do its job, did the mine operator comply with the existing law?

If so, then new technology may be the only possible fix. If not, it's a slightly different picture.

Some no doubt would be pleased if a new focus on technology were to take the public heat off the questions about enforcement and compliance.

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