Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Miners and Miners

Miners and miners. American and Canadian. Three large mining accidents have taken place recently on this continent, two (at the Sago and Alma mines) in the United States and one (in Esterhazy, Saskatchewan) in Canada. The death tolls from these accidents: Fourteen dead. All American miners. All the Canadian miners were today brought to safety:

Rescuers retrieved all 72 central Canadian potash miners who were trapped underground by a fire and survived until Monday by using oxygen, food and water stored in subterranean emergency chambers.

Seventy-two miners were trapped early Sunday when a fire started in polyethylene piping more than a half-mile underground, filling the tunnels with toxic smoke and prompting the miners to take refuge in the sealed emergency rooms.

The Canadian and American accidents are not exactly identical and thus cannot be directly compared. But I grew curious about the idea of storing oxygen, food and water in subterranean emergency chambers, and I tried to find out if the same was done at the Sago mine in the U.S..

The answer appears to be no:

The Sago miners had oxygen devices. Why don't they last longer or have oxygen available?

MSHA's standards state that mine operators must provide "self- rescue devices" adequate to protect the miner for 1 hour or longer. A person from Homeland Security was on television and informed the nation that the miners had devices that would last 7 hours. However, this was not the case. We have been told that the devices the Sago miners had were good for 1 hour. According to an MSHA specialist, the SCSRs might last 2-3 hours "if they nurse it." Some operators will store additional self rescue devices throughout the mine in case of a mine emergency, but this is not required by the government. Again, there is the fact that while mine rescue teams can be located up to 2 hours away, miners only have 1 hour of air with their self-contained self-rescue devices.

Bolds are mine. So the government doesn't require emergency storage of oxygen in the mines. Ok. How about the Canadian government? It seems that it does.

Another interesting item I learned was this:

First, the Bush administration withdraws a regulation that would have revised MSHA's 15-year old mine rescue regulation, kills a regulation that would have helped prevent conveyor belt fires, changes mine ventilation rules that experts say will allow fires to spread more rapidly through the mine, cutting off miners' fresh air -- and now this from today's Charleston Gazette:

Just two years ago, the Bush administration rejected a proposal to give coal miners text-messaging devices that could warn them of underground fires and explosions.

If the Sago Mine had had these devices, 13 miners trapped underground could have been told it was safe for them to just walk out after a Jan. 2 explosion.

If workers at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine three weeks later had had text-messaging devices, they could have been warned sooner of a dangerous fire that killed two workers.

MSHA already could have acted to accept text-messaging proposals that labor and industry officials made after a major mine disaster in Alabama.

The nation's 42,000 underground coal miners already could have communication devices to help them escape potentially deadly mine accidents, according to a review of public records and interviews with mine safety experts.

U.S. coal companies have known about the devices — called Personal Emergency Devices, or PEDs — since at least the late 1980s. But without an industry-wide mandate, few operators have installed the systems in their mines. Only 19 of about 800 underground U.S. mines use PEDs, according to MSHA records.

These devices, manufactured by an Australian firm, Mine Site Technologies, use ultra-low frequency electromagnetic fields to send text messages from the surface to the fields -- warning miners to evacuate and best evacuations routes, for example.

The devices have been used for almost 20 years in Australia. Following the September 2001, explosions at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine outside Tuscaloosa, Alabama that killed 13 miners, the United Minworkers recommended that MSHA require the devices. In that incident, four miners were injured by an initial explosion, but the others were killed attempting to rescue the injured miners, not knowing about the explosion or the dangers of another explosion.

The devices were used successfully in the US in a 1998 fire at the Willow Creek Mine in Carbon County, Utah, where the entire workforce of mine was successfully evacuated from a serious mine fire.

Hmmm. Miners and miners. Some dead, some alive. Like canaries in a mine. The question is why.