Utah collapse brings closer scrutiny of mine safety reform

As tunneling to reach trapped Utah coal miners progresses slowly, officials assess the nation's implementation of changes mandated after the Sago disaster.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In the year and a half since a coal-mine disaster in West Virginia gripped the nation and caused fresh scrutiny of mine safety regulations, the US government has beefed up efforts to keep miners that may be trapped below ground alive longer and redoubled efforts to identify potential safety hazards and fine companies.

Now, as another desperate race against time unfolds in another coal mine 2,000 miles away, industry observers confirm that overall mine safety has improved, but say more can be done by the industry to improve mining practices.

"The government learned lessons from Sago," says J. Davitt McAteer, a former official with the US government's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), referring to the mine explosion in West Virginia in which 12 miners perished and one, miraculously, survived.

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Heralded as the most significant mining legislation in 30 years, the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, signed into law by President Bush on June 15, 2006, was a result of investigations into the Sago accident.

The three key changes, Mr. McAteer says, are requirements to provide enough oxygen for workers to survive for as long as 50 hours, provide wireless communications, and harden the chambers where miners can await rescue.

The general rule is that "if you can keep them alive for 50 hours, we can get to them," says McAteer, now vice president at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. The six miners now trapped in a Utah coal mine have enough air and water to survive for several days, according to officials at the Crandall Canyon Mine.

McAteer says it appears, because officials have no way to communicate with the trapped miners, that the Crandall Canyon Mine still used the old land-line telephone system. The new legislation called for wireless communications to be developed within three years, so the Crandall Canyon Mine would have been in compliance.

The other most important change called for, according to McAteer, was the hardening of chambers in which miners can hold out during rescue efforts. Those were required in West Virginia but not in the rest of the country.

It is too early to know what caused the collapse at the Crandall Canyon Mine. Early reports indicated an earthquake caused the cave-in, and the mine's parent company insisted Tuesday that is in fact what happened. Others, though, said the explosion in the mine probably caused the 3.9 magnitude seismic waves recorded at the University of Utah. Experts say it will take until Wednesday morning to determine which scenario is correct.

At time of writing Tuesday, rescuers continued tunneling through 1,500 tons of debris to try to reach the miners trapped nearly four miles deep in the mine. "They are working in 12-hour shifts to rebuild damaged ventilation controls," according to officials at MSHA. "Approximately 22 miners are expected to go underground on dayshift. Equipment moves and equipment preparation are ongoing. A total of 12 mine rescue teams are available to go underground, with four teams currently on site."

In addition to the clearing of debris in the tunnel leading to the trapped miners, other crews attempted to drill holes into the top of the mine to provide fresh air to the miners.

Murray Energy Group, which owns the Crandall Mine, is in the process of "exhausting efforts" to reach the trapped miners, Bob Murray, company president, said early Tuesday. Still, it will take at least three days to reach them, he says. Rescuers are 2,000 feet from the closest access point.

The company has moved in 30 pieces of massive mining equipment, Mr. Murray says. Some 134 men, mostly professionals from other mines, are working in six teams on rescue efforts. Even so, the teams have moved only 310 feet closer to the trapped miners from where they started – gaining only 50 feet Tuesday night.

The MSHA has issued 325 citations against the Crandall Canyon Mine since 2004, according to the agency's online records. Of those, 116 were considered "significant and substantial," which means they are likely to cause injuries.

Last month, inspectors cited the mine for violating a rule requiring that at least two passageways be designed for escape in an emergency.

The 325 citations would not be "an unusual number," says McAteer. "The ones that are troubling are where there's a mine-evacuation violation. Those are troubling events and those shouldn't happen."

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