- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

A bipartisan group of senators yesterday criticized the company that owns the Sago Mine, where 12 died, for failing to make modest investments in technology that could have helped rescuers locate trapped miners and communicate with them.

In the first congressional hearing since the Jan. 2 Sago Mine disaster in Tallmansville, W.Va., senators questioned whether budget cuts at a regulatory agency prompted the disaster by hindering enforcement of regulations and said Congress must consider forcing mining companies to invest in technology to protect miners.

“There’s no doubt there needs to be a lot more funding,” Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee said after the hearing.

Also yesterday, the West Virginia Senate unanimously passed legislation requiring mines to use electronic devices to track trapped miners and store more oxygen underground. Fourteen miners have died in West Virginia in three weeks with the deaths over the weekend of two men after a fire in Aracoma Coal’s Alma No. 1 mine in Melville.

Mining companies have access to new technology that could help rescuers, but they aren’t spending money on new equipment, former Labor Department Assistant Secretary J. Davitt McAteer said.

“We have not provided [miners] with good equipment, and that has got to be fixed,” said Mr. McAteer, who served as the Labor Department’s assistant secretary for mine safety from 1993 to 2000.

Placing a locator device on miners would cost $20 per worker, he said. A text-messaging device developed in Australia would help rescuers send information to miners about fires, explosions or routes of escape. The text-messaging equipment costs about $100,000 per mine to install, Mr. McAteer said. Fourteen mines use the devices.

The Labor Department says 1,982 mines were operating in the third quarter last year.

“It seems like a small price to pay. It seems like there are investments we need to be making. You hate to regulate everything but, doggone it, if they aren’t going to do it, maybe we need to make them do it,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat.

Bennett Hatfield, president and chief executive officer of International Coal Group Inc., the company that owns the Sago Mine, told senators the text-messaging devices hold promise, but the company uses them in one Illinois mine and has questions about the technology’s reliability.

He also said he hopes the deaths of the 12 miners at the Sago Mine prompt more research and development of technology to protect miners.

Mr. McAteer, who is conducting an independent investigation on behalf of West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III, said voice communications can be improved to prevent the type of miscommunication that occurred when it was erroneously reported that the miners were alive.

Information about the conditions of miners likely became jumbled because rescuers had to rely on hand-held radios with limited range, and information was relayed at least five times before reaching people outside the Sago Mine.

Fatalities have declined over the past decade. Last year, 22 miners died in the U.S., down 53 percent from 1995, when 47 miners died.

Lawmakers didn’t place blame solely on International Coal Group. The mine safety administration’s budget increased from $242 million in fiscal 2001 to $280 million in fiscal 2006, but Congress has imposed a 1 percent recission, cutting the agency’s budget by $2.8 million.

That reduction led the agency to cut 183 workers and that could have resulted in less enforcement of the 1969 Coal Mine Safety and Health Act, lawmakers said.

“We need more enforcement, not less,” said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat.

David Dye, acting assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, disputed whether budget cuts played a role in the Sago Mine disaster.

Inspectors issued 208 citations for violations at the Sago Mine last year, including withdrawal orders that shut down areas of the mine on 18 occasions, Mr. Dye said.

Mining companies can be fined up to $60,000 for a violation, Mr. Dye said. A proposal in the Senate would increase maximum fines to $220,000.

Mr. Specter and Mr. Byrd endorsed increasing fines.

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