Mine safety lags


MINE safety works just like the sad old stop-light story: Motorists can complain about a dangerous intersection, but they won't get a new traffic signal until someone dies.

Except that to get improved mine safety standards, about a dozen mine workers must die. All at once. One here or there won't do it.

After 27 miners died at the Wilberg Mine near Price, Utah, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration in 1987 required additional training on emergency breathing devices. In 2002, after 13 miners died in an explosion at the Jim Walters Resources mine in Alabama, MSHA rewrote mine evacuation rules.

Following the Jan. 2 explosion at the Sago mine in West Virginia, MSHA issued temporary emergency regulations, including one that serious accidents be reported within 15 minutes. It took Sago two hours to report the blast that killed one miner outright and slowly suffocated 11 more. In addition, Congress enacted a law requiring additional emergency oxygen supplies and regularly updated rescue plans.

Then, just last week, MSHA significantly increased its minimum standard for mine seal construction. Initially, the seals had to withstand pressure of 20 pounds per square inch; now it is 50. An explosion behind such a wall at Sago blew it out, leading to the disaster.

The new standard is great, but galling. That's because other industrialized nations, like Australia and South Africa, already use the higher standard.

The same day MSHA announced the new standard, an investigator chosen by West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III released recommendations to avoid another Sago. Among them was installation of impregnable underground rescue shelters. Had such a refuge been available to the Sago miners, 12 might have survived instead of one.

Again, what's upsetting about the recommendation is that it's been standard practice in other countries. In January, just days after the Sago deaths, 72 Canadian potash miners used such chambers to survive an underground fire and toxic smoke. All 72 alive!

The shelters would be costly, but then Canadian mining companies manage to afford them. The families of 12 dead Sago miners would certainly say such an investment by coal companies would be just and justified.

MSHA should require implementation of the Sago recommendations immediately. No more miners should have to die to force reasonable safety improvements.