Post-Sago Disaster progress, or not?

Early Sunday morning (May 10), I read a news brief from WSAZ reporting that seven workers had been rescued from a flooded underground coal mine in Gilbert, WV, after being trapped for 32+ hours.  As I combed the web for further details, I was struck by the news accounts and audio recordings noting that the trapped miners and their families had spoken numerous times by telephone during the ordeal, as if such conversations are ho-hum-routine during mine emergencies.  

I was fascinated simply reading that the miners trapped under the earth had a means to communicate with the surface.   I had flashbacks to the news coverage of the Sago disaster, when every other question seemed to be “why can’t anybody communicate with those men?” or “don’t coal mines have systems to talk to the workers under-ground?”   Does anybody else remember that?

As Sago played out on our television screens, I know my family and friends were shocked to learn about the antiquated safety equipment provided to our nation’s mine workers.  So too were Members of Congress who passed the MINER Act of 2006, which included provisions for post-accident commication systems and tracking.

On Sunday morning, as I read the news stories about the trapped miners apparently having frequent conversations with the outside world, I wondered:

Could this be the Sago legacy?  Three years after that terrible disaster, families and co-workers are assured that when emergency situations occur underground, the miners’ lifeline of communication will prevail.  

I also wondered about the owners of the Mountaineer Alma A Mine, Alpha Natural Resources.  Had they been inspired by the Sago disaster and compelled by the spirit of the MINER Act to provide a robust tracking and redundant two-way communication system for their employees?  Was this the post-Sago, feel-good story I’ve been hoping to read?

Well, leave it to the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward and at least one of his Coal Tattoo readers to ask themselves the same question.  In “Let’s Talk: Mine Communication Systems,” Ward reports:

“Jama Jarrett, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, said the Mountaineer Alma Mine had in place a system from GAI-TRONICS.  ‘It is a two-way communications system that utilizes a dispatcher who patches calls to a hard line and vice versa.  This mine does not have its communication tracking system in place yet.'”

He continues:

“One mine safety expert told me that this system amounted to the old-style ‘pager phones’ in place at many underground mines. It was hardly sophisticated, wireless equipment that would withstand an explosion or fire.'”

So much for my feel good story.

Defenders of the coal mining industry will want to remind me that mine operators have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on safety improvements over the last couple of years to meet new federal and state requirements.  They’ll also note that they are “in-compliance” with these new laws. 

That’s true.  In West Virginia, for example, the State passed a law requiring mine operators to submit plans by July 2007 for wireless communications and tracking systems.  They’ve submitted their plans, but loophole, there’s no deadline for actually having the equipment up and running.   At the federal level, coal mine operators are also “in compliance” because the MINER Act set a mid-June 2009 deadline for these systems.  

Where does this leave me? 

I’m hoping that on June 16, 2009, (the day after the MINER Act is fully effective) Labor Secretary Solis sends a report to Senators Murray and Isakson listing each of the underground coal mines in the country along with the brand name and type of communication and tracking system installed in each.   With this, the public will decide whether we have post-Sago progress, or not.

Celeste Monforton, MPH, DrPH is an assistant research professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health.  She served on the Governor of West Virginia’s special investigation of the Sago Mine Disaster led by J. Davitt McAteer.

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