Whitesburg KY

Safety not optional

The dramatic testimony of Paul Ledford, the only survivor of the 2006 Darby No. 1 coal mine explosion that killed five in Harlan County, is powerful evidence in favor of what miners call “refuge chambers.”

Mr. Ledford, testifying at a hearing in Lexington last week sponsored by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, is convinced some of his co-workers would have lived, had there been a safe place nearby, underground, stocked with food, water and air, and insulated from deadly gases.

Coal operators offer endless excuses for avoidable safety problems, but they are right when they claim that mining is inherently and inevitably dangerous. Nothing is going to eliminate the risk miners face every time they go underground. But threats to their health can be reduced, and opportunities for survival can be improved — not by the farce the Bush administration made of regulation, with so-called “compliance assistance,” but with tough enforcement of realistic rules.

A fine example of what’s unrealistic is a proposed regulation that was the subject of the hearing at which Mr. Ledford testified. It would give operators the option of storing survival material near enough for use in an emergency. This obviously would not accomplish what a refuge chamber could.

Miner advocate Tony Oppegard was everlastingly right when he said outlaw operators (and there are too many of them running coal mines) would opt for that cheap alternative rather than spend $100,000 on a prefabricated shelter, of the kind some already use in Illinois, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Technical concerns raised at the hearing by Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, should be given due consideration. Needlessly replacing shelters already in use at some Kentucky mines makes no sense, if they can do the job. But the first job of mine regulators is protecting miners.

— The Courier-Journal, Louisville

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