2007-08-22 / Opinions

Did they all die in vain?

First, call the roll of those killed in action:

Tom Anderson, Jarred Ashmore, James Bennett, Marty Bennett, Dale Black, David Bolen, Don Bragg, Amon Brock, Stevie Joe Browning, Steven Bryant, Timothy Caudill, Russell Cecchine, Thomas Channell, Mario Corriveau, Richard Cox, Wade Drew, Brett Gibson, John Elliott, Edward Fitzgerrel, Jeremy Garcia, Charles Griffith, Jerry Groves, Junior Hamner, Howard Harvey, Elvis Hatfield, Todd Heckler, Terry Helms, Shane Jacobson, Gary Jensen, Dale Jones, Garry Jones, Jesse Jones, Brandon Kimber, Jimmy Lee, David Lewis, Eddie Linton, John May, Daniel McFadden, Jerry McKinney, Rick McKnight, Bobby Messer, Roy Middleton, Willard Miller, Jason Mosley, Paul Moss, George Petra, Pete Poindexter, Dale Reightler, Christopher Richardson, Robert Runyon, Joseph Seay, Tony Swiney, James Thomas, Paris Thomas, Jr., James Thornsbury, Jackie Toler, Martin Toler, Jr., Todd Upton, Edmund Vance, Fred Ware, Jr., Jackie Weaver, Michael Wilt, Marshall Winans, Cornelius Yates.

Next, the names of those missing in action:

Kerry Allred, Don Erickson, Luis Hernandez, Brandon Phillips, Juan Carlos Payan, Manuel Sanchez.

Lost in Iraq? Afghanistan? No, these are the 63 coal miners (18 of them from Kentucky) and one federal mine inspector who have been killed in U.S. mines since January 1, 2006 - plus the six who, as of this writing, remain unaccounted for, in the slow-motion collapse of Murray Energy's Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah.

It's a terrible toll - 70 miners in all - and one that should be unacceptable, because fatality-by-fatality reviews show that most of these deaths could have been prevented by a combination of systematic risk assessment, conscientious mine management, diligent regulatory enforcement, and adoption of technologies that are taken for granted elsewhere.

Consider the links between the 12 miners lost in the Sago Mine disaster on January 2, 2006, the two miners lost in the fire at Massey Energy's Aracoma Alma Mine on January 19, 2006, the five miners lost in the Kentucky Darby Mine explosion in Harlan County on May 20, 2006, and the six miners missing at Crandall Canyon since the cave-in on August 6, 2007.

First: in each case, the miners were equipped with outmoded emergency breathing devices - Self-Contained Self-Rescuers (SCSRs) - that are hard to use under ideal conditions, let alone in panic.

The SCSRs used today were developed decades ago. Miners must manually activate them (a multi-step, non-intuitive process) and insert a mouthpiece - which then makes voice communication impossible. Most miners aren't given realistic SCSR training, so the unfamiliar stress of breathing through the device can create the impression that the SCSR isn't working.

Investigators know that at Sago, Alma, and Darby, miners had trouble with their SCSRs. Some abandoned them or removed their mouthpieces to communicate (or, at Sago, while they pounded on roof bolts, hoping to signal rescuers) - a potentially fatal error, because reactivating an SCSR is almost impossible. So instead of saving lives, SCSRs in many cases appear to have contributed to miners' confusion and disorientation. If the six miners missing at Crandall Canyon had time to use their SCSRs, odds are that they too had trouble.

Technology advances have long since made today's SCSRs obsolete. Firefighters have full-face breathing gear that permits voice communication and requires no activation beyond turning a valve. Similar next-generation SCSRs could have been developed - that is, if the coal industry had been willing to spend money on safety improvements and if federal agencies, particularly the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), had cooperatively and aggressively encouraged (and funded) research and development by entrepreneurs with good ideas.

But they didn't, and still don't.

The second thing that links these tragedies is the absence of 21stcentury communications technology. At Sago, Alma, Darby, and Crandall Canyon, rescuers couldn't communicate with miners. In the first three cases, the mines had obsolete hardwired phone systems that were either knocked out or useless because their fixed locations weren't close to the miners. At Crandall Canyon, miners carried wireless Personal Emergency Devices (PEDs) that permit text messages to be sent to all miners. But PEDs are one-way devices, so there's no way to know if miners have received messages or for them to signal their location or condition.

Many commentators have expressed shock that in an age when miners carry cellphones in their pickups and can call home to ask what's for dinner, they can't communicate electronically underground. Well, yes, it's shocking, but there's a reason.

Name five U.S. coal companies that have generously supported research to develop a two-way PED, hardened wireless two-way phone systems, and a tracking system capable of instantly locating miners. You can't, because none has.

Prior to Sago, most of the progress in this area was the result of efforts by Australians, not Americans. Legislation enacted after Sago does require mine owners to install modern two-way communication systems underground. But they've been given until 2009, and as of today only a few companies have even made mines available to field-test the systems being developed. So further delays are likely.

Worse yet, the coal industry isn't spending a dime to help undercapitalized entrepreneurs move their promising products from benchtesting to mine-testing and then through the final MSHA- approval stage - a frustratingly slow, costly process that thwarts innovation. For the industry to sit on the sidelines is scandalous - and just a tad ironic, since the captains of the coal industry aren't shy about proclaiming themselves champions of free enterprise.

So here's our fantasy. A few key CEOs suddenly see the light. They get together with MSHA, NIOSH, and a bunch of experts - perhaps under the auspices of West Virginia's National Technology Transfer Center, or some other honest broker - to fast-track mine safety and health technologies. They pledge to protect every underground miner in America with technology exceeding the requirements of the legislation enacted in 2006 and without waiting for regulatory deadlines to hit them upside the head.

OK, it's just a dream. But what about those 70 lost miners? Do we do something unprecedented, something that gives their deaths meaning - or will they all have died in vain?

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