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Could rescue chambers have saved West Virginia miners?

Mine rescue chambers have been required since 2006, even though federal authorities could have required them as far back as 1969. But it's still unclear whether miners in this week's explosion in West Virginia could have reached the chambers.

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Mr. McGinley of West Virginia University says since then, the issue of refuge chambers “was ignored by administration after administration.”

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Coal industry authorities had long argued the chambers were unnecessary because it hadn’t been proved that they would work; they also made the argument that determining methods of escaping the mines should be the single priority for all emergency measures and funding.

“MSHA had the authority and the power to require them but they didn’t,” says McGinley. “I attribute that to simply the political and economic power of the coal industry that the industry argued they wouldn’t work, they weren’t economical and the whole concept got lost over time.”

The chambers have since become standard in mines around the world and are considered responsible for saving the lives of nickel miners in Australia and potassium chloride miners in Canada.

Sago disaster forced new mine safety measures

For the US to make them law it took the 2006 mine disaster in Sago, W. Va. that killed 13 miners, a tragedy that forced the passage of the MINER act.

“After Sago it became clear that if [there had been] a refuge chamber, those guys could have gotten in there and survived,” says Larry Grayson a former engineer for Kennedy Metal Products, Inc., which produces one of four chambers approved by the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training in 2007.

The legislation provided a safer alternative for miners trapped below ground, says Phil Smith, director of communications for the United Mine Workers of America, in Triangle, Va.

“Prior to the mandate they were taught to build barricades using a ventilation curtain and seal it as best they can and sit there with oxygen units and wait. The problem with that … is that those oxygen units only lasted an hour,” he says.

Mr. Grayson, an engineering professor at Pennsylvania State University and a former mine supervisor, says rescue chambers are designed for workers to reach far from an explosion, but in the Monday incident “they were hit immediately and didn’t have time to travel to the refuge chamber within 1,000 feet.”

He says it is likely that because the explosion was “sudden and violent,” there is little chance the missing miners reached the chamber. That’s why he says, “this will prove not to be a test case at all.”

“Unless we find these guys got into one. In that case, we’ll find out,” he says.

IN PICTURES: West Virginia mine explosion