Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Tracking System Saves A Miner

"Monsters and Critics" web news carries this report from Deutsche Presse-Agentur:

Warsaw - A Polish coal miner trapped more than a kilometre underground for 111 hours was brought to the surface alive and well Monday after rescuers freed him from under tons of rubble in the Halemba mine in Ruda Slaska, southern Poland....Rescuers located the man thanks to a special transmitter worn by miners.
Zbigniew Nowak, 30, reportedly suffered dehydration but nothing worse. One other miner was rescued shortly after the roof fall and 30 more escaped on their own.

Monday, February 27, 2006

If any readers have ideas

The Mexican miners didn't make it. Authorities declared them dead, but crews still weren't able to reach them. Altogether about as bad as it could be.

Meanwhile, in this country we have both House and Senate hearings coming up this week on mine safety. Several proposed bills are on the table and more ideas are under discussion.

If readers would like to share ideas regarding the best way to legislate for better mine safety, feel free to e-mail me at minesafetywatch@hotmail.com. I'll post all comments that are fit to print :)

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Little Progress Four Days After Mexico Explosion

It is a long time, I believe, since this continent has seen a coal mine emergency of this magnitude. Possibly it has been since the 1968 explosion in Farmington, W.Va., when 78 died.

Some 65 miners remain missing after an explosion last Sunday at Grupo Mexico S.A. de C.V.'s Pasta de Conchos mine, about 85 miles from the U.S. border in the state of Coahuila, AP reported today. Reportedly rescuers were getting close to an area where two miners might have been.

MSHA's emergency operations team was dispatched Tuesday, the first time in several years that the agency has sent help to a mine emergency on foreign soil. They should be on site by now.

And in a familiar note, communication has become an issue here as well:

"The lack of news added to the strain on the hundreds of weary relatives of the trapped miners. The family members have camped outside the mine in the bitter cold since Sunday's pre-dawn explosion.

"A crowd of about 600 shouted at Vilchis until he took refuge behind a line of five soldiers guarding the entrance to the Pasta de Conchos mine.

"'What are you hiding?' shouted one man. 'If you don't tell us the truth we will go into the mine ourselves.'

Yadira Gallegos, whose brother-in-law is trapped in the mine, accused officials of lying to them.

"'They said they would tell us something at three o' clock, but they never came out. We want answers,' she said.

"The crowd calmed down when two rescue workers emerged from the pit in the evening and urged them to have patience."
Reuters has a piece on the economic realities of coal mining in Mexico. Sample:

"...with miners' wages often no more than 700 pesos ($67) a week, plus performance bonuses, there are few signs of prosperity here....

"Food is not scarce but it is basic -- potatoes, beans and tortillas, with a little meat thrown in once a week. New clothes for the children are bought when twice-yearly bonuses, obligatory under Mexican law, are paid.

"Life in the mines anywhere in the world is tough but some miners here say their hunger for the performance bonuses encourage accidents.

"Pedro Calzoncit Hernandes...has worked at area coal mines for more than 30 years. He said workers often ignored basic safety procedures and kept digging instead of laying down tools to check wires and ventilation pipes.

"'We earn a salary that feeds us, nothing more,' he said. 'That's why the desire to keep working often wins when really work should stop.'"
The Houston Chronicle also has a story on miners' lives, but gives it a macho take:

"Men continue going into the mines, their wives, mothers and lovers will say, because there's no other work. Poverty condemns them, the women say.

"'People who earn so little have no chance to educate their children,' said Maria Esther Martinez, 39...who hopes to keep her 15-year-old son from the tunnels. 'And a child without education hasn't any choices, at 18 years old it's to the mines.'

"...But that's not completely true, some miners say.

"There are options — area factories make everything from clothing to auto parts, steel foundries hire in Monclova and Monterrey, good-paying jobs await any man willing to illegally cross the Rio Grande. Many miners also have a bit of farmland, where they raise crops and livestock. But mining gets into a man's blood, some say. The camaraderie of riding down into the depths.

"...Mining's a calling, something a man can take pride in. Not everyone is willing to go down the holes, not everyone should.

"'It's a beautiful job, a worthy job,' said Ignacio Moreno, 38, who clocked out after the second shift at the No. 8 mine Saturday night, going to bed just a few hours before the 2 a.m. explosion trapped the 65 men."
We can bet the factory wages are less than mining, and it seems a little odd to imply that the mines must all right because illegal immigration provides an alternative.

But as for mining getting into the blood, that sounds like something U.S. and Mexican miners share: a proud heritage and a very special bond.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

You Just Couldn't Make This Stuff Up

Shredding the facts and using them as confetti, Episode No. we've lost count:

Today's not-to-be-missed story is in the Courier-Journal.

"The crowd must have been impressed at last week's hearing on the Department of Labor budget. Two real players were on the floor...

Chao, who says the feds are doing a fine job, obviously needed an assist at the hearings. Into the lineup came Northup, saying, 'As I understand it, the new West Virginia law that pertains to mining safety requires technology that, now that it has been signed, turned out not to really exist or hasn't been developed. Before we pass more laws, I think it's important we invest in more development.'

'You're absolutely right,' chirped Chao."

Only the devices they're discussing are already used in about a dozen U.S. mines according to testimony in other Congruessional forums since the Sago explosion.

For instance, the manufacturer was showing them at a Senate-side technology roundtable one a week ago.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Diesel Daze

Cindy Skrzycki of the Washington Post had a piece Tuesday about MSHA's diesel emissions exposure rule for underground metal and nonmetal mines, which MSHA recently proposed to delay for another 5 years.

The coal mining sector accepted underground diesel emissions exposure limits without contesting them, several years ago.

The rules for non-coal mines were first proposed in 1998 and became final right at the end of the Clinton administration in January 2001. But industry complaints then led MSHA to delay the compliance schedule and reopen the rule. A key opponent has been the Mining Awareness Resource Group (MARG) Diesel Coalition, spearheaded by veteran mining industry attorney Chajet.

According to Skrzycki, Chajet has referred to the rule as a
"giant failed high school science project,"
despite extensive health and feasibility studies.

This month, former MSHA special assistant Celeste Monforton published a knock-down-drag-out narrative of the metal/nonmetal diesel rule's contorted course in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Public Health. (Abstract is here.)

"The posturing by MARG, some mining companies and MSHA goes on in air-conditioned offices while underground miners continue to breathe the highest level of diesel exhaust of any workers in the country,"
Monforton wrote.

Monforton, who holds a Master's degree in public health, now is with George Washington University's Environmental and Occupational Health department.

Skrzycki reported that Representatives Major R. Owens (D-N.Y.) and Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) have written to Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao asking her to cancel the latest proposed delay.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Just A Quick Roundup Today

"The federal government levied a larger fine — $550,000 — for the 2004 Super Bowl showing of Janet Jackson's breast than it did for the 2001 deaths of 13 miners in one of the deadliest mine disasters in a quarter-century,"
USA Today/Gannett reports.

Kentucky's House has following West Virginia's suit by passing a bill to strengthen mine safety by requiring more SCSRs underground, quicker accident reporting and more inspections, the Courier-Journal reported. The bill now goes to the state Senate.

West Virginia has passed another law, requiring that the new director of mine safety have 5 years of mining education/experience (Charleston Daily Mail).

And the minority staff of the U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee this week released a report that rips MSHA enforcement.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

MSHA Flip-Flops on Breathing Devices, WV Mine Safety Chief Stepping Down

Seth Borenstein of Knight-Ridder's Washington Bureau:

"Federal mine safety officials, who four years ago axed a requirement to stock coal mines with spare emergency air masks to protect miners from poisonous gases, now say workers are in 'grave danger' without those breathing devices.

"Following back-to-back mining accidents in West Virginia that killed 14 men last month, the Bush administration is reviving a rule that would require the added supplies of the masks and the training to use them."

MSHA rushed out a press release late yesterday after being called to comment on the story.

After criticism from the Courier-Journal about failure to collect civil penalties, MSHA is now suing a defunct mine operator in the state, the newspaper reports.

Doug Conaway, director of West Virginia's Office on Miners' Health, Safety and Training, who has been less than highly visible for some months now, says he will leave the job soon.

And Governor Manchin is taking on an unpaid legal adviser to the mine safety office.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Welcome to Washington

On a lighter note, I see MSHA acting assistant secretary David Dye and coal mine safety and health administrator Ray McKinney have achieved the 15 minutes of fame that comes to so many in Washington by making Al Kamen's In the Loop.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.)apparently hasn't dropped his indignation over Dye's early walkout on a special appropriations subcommittee meeting January 23 to discuss the Sago disaster.

"Were these men instructed by anybody in your department to leave?" Specter asked [in a letter to Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao].

Senator, since you raise the question, I also heard from more than one MSHA source that Dye and McKinney left the hearing under orders from above.

I also found, via the Internet, that Secretary Chao herself reportedly walked away in the middle of a January 2004 Specter hearing on the Labor Department's then-prospective revisions to overtime rules.

The Washington Post reported the overtime hearing story, which -- *paranoia alert* -- seems to be gone from the newspaper's website since I first located it.

But, the story I remember also was copied, without attribution,(tut tut tut) on various organizational websites:

Labor Secretary refuses to delay new overtime provisions
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, appearing before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, refused a request by Republican chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to delay the implementation of the Bush administration’s plan to change overtime provisions.

Jared Bernstein, economist of the Economic Policy Institute, testified before the subcommittee that 8 million workers could lose overtime should the changes be implemented, dwarfing the figure peddled by the Labor Department, which estimates a mere 644,000 workers would be affected.

“Enough time has been spent on delays and studies of all sorts,” Chao said, in reference to Specter’s request that her department delay the new implementation, presently scheduled for March 31, until September. Specter also asked Chao if she would remain at the hearings while following testimony debated how many workers would be adversely affected by the new measure. Chao left immediately following her testimony.

and footnoted in the Washington Times as well:

Washington Times: Bush gives Specter smackdown on overtime


Wednesday, January 21, 2004

WASHINGTON-- U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao has denied a public request from Pennsylvania's senior senator to delay loosening the nation's overtime rules.

Chao, testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee's labor subcommittee, refused a request by the panel's chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., to delay until September a business-backed plan to overhaul overtime rules.

"Enough time has been spent on delays and studies of all sorts," Chao told Specter at the Tuesday hearing, adding the department intends to put the new regulations into effect by March 31.

Chao said employers are spending $2 billion a year on "needless litigation" by workers seeking overtime pay. The lawsuits diverted money from "job creation and better pay and benefits," she said.

Specter, facing a re-election fight against conservative Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., scheduled the hearing so the topic could get a "full airing."

Besides asking Chao for the delay, Specter also asked her to remain in the hearing room for subsequent discussions. She refused, leaving after her scheduled testimony, the Washington Post reported

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Two More In West Virginia

From the Charleston Gazette:

"The two fatalities Wednesday, both in Boone County, come just after a month that saw 14 West Virginia miners die in two accidents. The 16 industry deaths so far in 2006 are the most reported in any entire year in West Virginia since 1995, when there were also 16.

At Long Branch Energy’s No. 18 Tunnel Mine near Wharton.. said Dirk Fillpot, a spokesman for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration....“The rib popped out from the side of the mine.”

This means that unmined coal, which is left in place to help support the area, gave way under excessive pressure. The issues in this type of accident are generally the same as in roof falls. Did the mine operator follow the approved roof control plan? Was the plan adequate? Had there been similar incidents or was there any other reason why the failure could be anticipated? Roof fall deaths nationwide increased last year despite the overall low record in coal mining deaths.

A miner at the same operation suffered a lost-time injury in another "rib roll" on January 6. The mine operator described it this way in a report to MSHA (emphasis mine):

"EE was changing scoop battery at mains battery station. He walked around front of scoop bucket and rib roll caught foot against scoop bucket. He returned to restricted duty work on 11/18/06."

(Obvious error in return-to-work date, must mean 1/18.) Also,
"At Massey Energy subsidiary Elk Run Coal Co.’s Black Castle Surface Mine near Williams Mountain, a dozer driver hit a gas well or a gas line. The driver was killed in the ensuing fire, according to state and federal officials."

Governor Manchin has asked all West Virginia coal mines to interrupt production and review their safety.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Lots of Developments, Good and Otherwise

Richard Stickler, former director of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Deep Mine Safety, spoke at his confirmation hearing yesterday before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. He had some good things to say about his long experience in mining, mine safety and mine rescue. But Senators of both parties appeared to me to be frustrated by his noncommittal responses on many points as they asked for his commitment to making changes. Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) pressed Stickler repeatedly to meet with the families of the Sago victims, and soon, if he is confirmed. Stickler's final response was inaudible.

MSHA has just reversed itself on a two-year-old secrecy policy under which the agency has refused to release inspector notes under FOIA until all possibility of litigation has expired (potentially years in some cases). The policy had changed more than 25 years of practice and seemed to please no one. Yet it required bipartisan requests from Congress(Republican, Democrat) to get MSHA to do the right thing. The unannounced adoption of the policy first was brought to light by Mine Safety and Health News in 2004, and most recently hit the pages of Time . Inspectors' notes have not been the only subject of a FOIA rollback at MSHA, but they are significant and it's gratifying that the agency has returned to following the law on this point.

Pete Galvin, who worked in MSHA's Office of Standard, Regulations and Variance in the 1990's, is now in the office of Rep. George Miller (D-Mass.) and focusing on mine safety and health issues. He gave the okay to publish his contact information for any friends who might like to get in touch: (202) 225-3656, or e-mail peter.galvin@mail.house.gov

West Virginia's federal legislators have just introduced potentially far-reaching mine safety legislation in Congress. Information from Senator Byrd's office follows.

For immediate release: Wednesday, February 1, 2006
Contact: Jennifer Reed, 202-224-3904; Mark Ferrell, 304-342-5955

West Virginia Federal Delegation Introduces Mine Safety Bill

WASHINGTON, D.C.... U.S. Senators Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., introduced legislation aimed at preventing future fatal mine tragedies. The legislation, written by all five members of the West Virginia Congressional Delegation, will focus on several areas, including rapid notification and response, tougher penalties for habitual safety violators, emergency communications and breathing equipment, and expanded use of advanced safety technologies. The text of Senator Byrd’s introductory remarks are below.


It has been almost one month since the explosion that killed twelve miners at the Sago Mine in Upshur County, West Virginia, and almost two weeks since the conveyor belt fire that killed two miners at the Aracoma Alma Mine in Logan County, West Virginia. In that time, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) of the U.S. Department of Labor has briefed my office on several occasions. The Senate-Labor HHS Appropriations Subcommittee, at my request and under the leadership of Chairman Arlen Specter and Ranking Member Tom Harkin, has held a hearing and solicited testimony from mine safety experts. The West Virginia Delegation in the House and the Senate has met with the Governor of West Virginia, the White House Chief of Staff, and the acting MSHA Director to review mine safety legislation passed by the West Virginia Legislature in the wake of the Sago and Alma tragedies.

We now can speak with some certainty about what contributed to the tragedies at the Sago and Alma Mines that killed 14 coal miners. We know that these tragedies have highlighted gross weaknesses in mine emergency preparedness, and the failure of leadership at the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to get tough about rescue procedures.

We know that communications technology in our nation's coal mines is inadequate. The federal mine regulators require only that a telephone line connect the working sections of mines to the surface. If that telephone line doesn't work in the event of an emergency, the miners trapped underground are cut off from the rescue effort. Those on the surface cannot get a message to the miners underground, and the miners underground cannot get a message to those on the surface. At the Sago and Alma Mines, families waited in anguish for forty hours, not knowing if their loved ones were alive or dead, because the communications equipment in the mine didn't work.

We know that federal mine safety officials cannot immediately locate miners trapped underground. At both the Sago and Alma Mines, families waited and waited, while rescue teams searched meticulously through the underground caverns. Those teams could only make educated guesses about the location of the trapped miners, putting the rescue teams' lives and the lives of the trapped miners at increased risk while the search went on.

We know that the MSHA notification and response system is ponderously slow. Federal mine safety officials did not know of the Sago explosion until two hours after it happened, and it took another nine hours before rescue teams could enter the mine. The same thing happened at the Alma Mine. Federal mine safety officials did not know of the underground fire for two and one-half hours, and, in that time, the fire spread and got worse.

We know that federal mine regulators require only that miners have a one-hour emergency breathing device, and, at the Sago Mine, one hour of oxygen was not nearly adequate to sustain those miners through a forty-hour rescue operation. We also know that the Mine Safety and Health Administration, tragically, abandoned its assessment of the rules governing these one-hour emergency breathing devices in December of 2001.

We know that the mine rescue teams, at both the Sago and Alma Mines, were forced to wait for a frustrating amount of time because the coal operators had to negotiate the question of liability before the rescue teams could enter the mines. We know that federal mine regulators have been aware of this liability problem since 1995, and that MSHA has not taken steps to address it, or to update and improve rules related to the number of rescue teams per mine and their ability to respond rapidly. The only recent effort to update these rules was halted by MSHA in 2002.

The Sago Mine was a habitual violator with 276 citations and orders issued in 2004 and 2005. The coal operator never paid a fine more than $440, even though mandatory health and safety standards were repeatedly violated. Meanwhile, MSHA assessed fines as low as $99 for violations that were classified as "significant and substantial" in threatening the safety and health of the miners at Sago.

MSHA has broad authority to protect coal miners, and the 1977 Mine Act is the strongest and most sweeping workplace safety law ever enacted in the United States, and, yet, even with these tools, the Mine Safety and Health Administration failed to protect the 14 miners who perished at the Sago and Alma Mines.

MSHA has the authority to require that secondary communications equipment be available in the event of an emergency. That authority was not used. It has the authority to require that emergency breathing devices be placed in the mines in the event of an extended recovery effort. That authority was not used. MSHA has the authority to penalize habitual violators, and to close those mines where pattern violations threaten a miner's life. That authority was not used.

MSHA is the federal agency charged with protecting coal miners, but it has scuttled 18 initiatives in the last five years to update and improve miner safety and emergency preparedness. Its leadership has embraced the status quo as good enough, and that attitude puts lives at risk.

In the past, mine disasters such as these have spurred tougher mine safety laws. The Farmington, West Virginia, disaster spurred the 1969 Coal Act, and subsequent disasters spurred the 1977 Mine Act. This time, the legacy of the Sago and Alma Mine disasters must be a tougher agency that will enforce the law.

Together with Senator Rockefeller and the West Virginia Delegation in the House, I am introducing legislation today that is a mandate for action. Our legislation does not amend the Mine Act. Our delegation takes the position that the Mine Act already provides the Labor Secretary with every authority necessary to prevent these kinds of tragedies. Instead, our legislation directs the Labor Secretary to employ the authorities of the Mine Act. It directs the Labor Secretary, within 90 days, to promulgate a series of health and safety rules aimed at improving mine safety enforcement and emergency preparedness.

It directs the Labor Secretary to establish a rapid notification and response system, and requires coal operators to expeditiously notify MSHA of emergencies. Any coal operator who fails to expeditiously notify federal mine safety officials, will be subject to a $100,000 fine. We must reduce the amount of time that is lost between a mine emergency and MSHA's notification and arrival on the scene.

Our legislation directs the Labor Secretary to reassess regulations that govern mine rescue teams to ensure that their numbers are sufficient, and that obstacles to their deployment are minimized. Mine rescue teams ought to be able to respond just as local fire department would respond to an emergency. It must not take 11 hours.

Our legislation requires coal operators to store additional emergency breathing supplies underground to sustain miners who may be trapped for an extended period. It requires the Labor Secretary to update and improve the rules governing emergency communications equipment that would allow miners underground to communicate with surface rescue efforts, and allow surface rescue efforts to locate miners underground. Never again should a miner lack access to a reasonable supply of oxygen underground or be unable to receive directions from the surface about escape routes.

On the enforcement side, our legislation requires the Labor Secretary to create a new $10,000 mandatory and minimum penalty for coal operators who display negligence or reckless disregard for safety standards. By negligence or reckless disregard, I am talking about coal operators who knew or should have known of a dangerous condition or practice, and failed to take the steps necessary to fix the problem, or who displayed conduct which exhibits a deplorable absence of care for the safety and health of the miners. If penalties are required in this kind of situation, then this statutory floor will help ensure that those penalties will hurt and hurt sufficiently to encourage violators to comply with the law.

Our legislation prohibits the use of belt entries for ventilation in contravention of an MSHA regulation issued in 2004, which likely played a part in the Alma fire.

Our legislation creates a science and technology office in the Labor Department to help expedite the introduction of the most advanced health and safety technologies into the mines, and to ensure that federal mine safety officials are actively pulling from other federal agencies those technologies that can help to protect miners. No longer should miners be sent underground with safety equipment that is decades out of date.

Our legislation creates the new position of ombudsman in the Labor Department's Inspector General office to allow miners to more easily report safety violations. To be effective, such a position requires the appointment and confirmation of someone with at least five years of expertise in mine safety and health. A miner should never have to feel that he has no options other than to continue to work in a dangerous environment.

I speak from the heart. I grew up in a coal miner's home. I married a coal miner's daughter. My brother-in-law died of black lung. His father was killed by a slate fall in a coal mine. For five years, the leadership in the Labor Department and the Mine Safety and Health Administration has worked against the health and safety needs of coal miners. If we must hold the hand of the Labor Department, and lead it like a stubborn and obstinate child, to force it to promulgate rules to implement the Mine Act and save lives, then that is exactly what we should do. If this Administration and MSHA will not lead, then this Congress must lead, and, if necessary, poke, prod, kick, and push MSHA into fulfilling its mandate.

At this late date, we need more than platitudes to protect the safety of our nation's miners. We need resources. We need swift action. We need to impress deeply upon the psyche of MSHA and the nation's coal mine operators that the safety of miners will not be compromised for personal profit or for politics.

Protecting the safety of our miners is a moral responsibility, and this legislation will help to make sure we never, ever, forget that.

Meanwhile, we lost another coal miner, in Utah this time...the Salt Lake Tribune has the story. And, lest we forget, another miner, in a bulldozer accident in Oregon. These guys are miners too, and the number of non-coal mining deaths last year increased notably.