- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 7, 2006

From combined dispatches

Coal mine operators will have to store extra oxygen supplies underground and more quickly notify the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration of accidents under emergency rules that the agency announced yesterday.

The agency expects to publish a new emergency rule for mines within the next two weeks, said MSHA spokesman Dirk Fillpot. The mine agency rarely issues emergency rules, which go into effect immediately. They are a departure from the typical, lengthy federal rule-making process.

The move comes after 16 miners died in several incidents within a month in West Virginia.

Miners wear oxygen packs containing about one hour’s worth of air. However, the emergency rule calls on companies to store extra packs in a readily accessible area for every miner.

The new emergency rule also says MSHA must receive a call within 15 minutes of an accident.

Coal companies are supposed to call the agency immediately after an accident occurs. However, it took about two hours for MSHA to be notified of the Jan. 2 accident at the Sago Mine in West Virginia.

The rule will require companies to make sure miners have “lifelines” along all primary and alternate escape routes. Those are guides, such as ropes with reflective tape, that help steer miners toward the surface after an explosion or other accident that leaves a mine dark.

A new West Virginia law, passed in a single day, also requires extra oxygen in the state’s mines. In addition, the state law requires coal companies to provide miners with emergency communication devices and equipment that can help rescuers locate trapped miners.

“It appears that MSHA is trying to catch up with the state legislative activity on a number of these issues,” said Joe Main, who recently retired as the top safety specialist at the United Mine Workers of America.

David Dye, acting assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said the agency’s action will better protect miners and help them safely evacuate during emergencies.

“This emergency rule making will require the use of proven technologies and techniques to help miners evacuate quickly and safely after a mine accident,” he said.

Also yesterday, West Virginia Mine Safety Director Doug Conaway announced that he will resign as soon as Gov. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, can name a replacement. Mr. Conaway said he was ready to try something different after more than 20 years in state government.

As director, Mr. Conaway would have played a pivotal role in investigating this year’s string of mine accidents.

On Monday, Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell ordered enhanced safety inspections of the state’s 77 underground mines after the West Virginia fatalities.

Mr. Rendell, a Democrat, also urged mining companies to heed a national call from the MSHA for “timeouts,” during which production is suspended while miners review safety procedures with management.

The new inspections, to be performed within the next 30 days, will be in addition to regular checks on mine safety conducted by state officials.

George Ellis, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Association, whose members perform 90 percent of the mining of the state’s underground coal, said his group would support the governor’s order and did not anticipate it would result in increased costs to producers.

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