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Feds propose stopgap communications plan for mines




CHARLESTON, W.Va.

America’s 600 underground coal mines would have to spend an estimated $278 million installing sophisticated electronic communications and tracking equipment under a new federal proposal requiring operators to file plans by next June with the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

MSHA’s idea is a compromise of sorts: the communications portion would require equipment that doesn’t qualify as wireless as mandated by federal law. While the agency has approved wireless tracking gear, it says wireless communications equipment won’t be technologically feasible for coal mines by a June 15, 2009 deadline.

Instead, MSHA is proposing nearly wireless systems that provide better two-way communications with the surface from deep underground with hand-held radios linked to a wired backbone.

“They would definitely be an improvement over what’s there now,” said Patricia Silvey, director of MSHA’s Office of Standards, Regulations & Variances.

The agency believes a stopgap is necessary to meet requirements of federal legislation adopted after three high-profile accidents killed 19 miners in 2006. The inability to find and communicate with missing miners hampered rescuers in those accidents, prompting Congress to order the industry to find a way to track and communicate with miners often several miles below ground.

The industry’s response to MSHA’s proposal has been muted.

The National Mining Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group, had no immediate comment.

But a big chunk of the industry might have to do little to meet MSHA’s proposed requirements.

West Virginia, the nation’s No. 1 underground coal producer, ordered underground mines to install similar equipment in 2006. Most of the state’s 273 underground operations have some kind of communications or tracking system up and running while they await final safety approval of components for the other.

“The differences between what we’ve done in West Virginia and this are relatively minor,” said Randy Harris, an engineering consultant who helped the state development its communications and tracking requirements. “It’s not going to have a lot of additional cost impact on mines that have already moved forward and it’s not going to make anything they’ve invested in obsolete.”

Moreover, West Virginia mine operators are largely pleased with the gear, which has improved efficiency as well as safety, said Chris Hamilton, a vice president with the West Virginia Coal Association.

“Our experience so far has been very positive,” said Hamilton, who estimated West Virginia mines have spent $100 million complying with the state requirement to date. “It’s not something sitting in a box like a fire extinguisher. The fact that you’re using it daily, there’s certainly routine maintenance, there’s continuous use.”

State safety director Ron Wooten considers the equipment going into West Virginia mines big improvements.

For instance, he recently watched a tracking system that displayed the names, location and direction of travel of everyone underground in real time. Since each person also was carrying a handheld radio, contact was immediate, compared with the old days when mines relied on hard-wired telephones that might ring unanswered.

Before West Virginia mandated tracking and communications improvements, a dispatcher on the surface would know only who was in the mine and where they were supposed to be, Wooten said.

“The communications person knows exactly where any person is at any one time.”


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