WASHINGTON – It is the makings of the perfect nightmare.
Men and women trapped thousands of feet underground,in a plume of black smoke and constant heat,knowing that with every panicked breath time could be running out.
Coal mining conditions in the United States have improved since the days of steam powered machinery,but this nightmare is still a reality for many miners. With few American coal mines having safe houses or above-ground communication,officials are concerned about the dangers miners face.
There have been 19 coal mining deaths so far this year.
Paul Rakes,a former miner and professor at the West Virginia University Institute of Technology,said the pattern throughout history shows coal mining regulations are made only after tragedies occur. He cited five tragedies – including the 1907 Monongah mining disaster,which killed more than 360 men and boys,and the recent tragedies at the Sago and Aracoma Alma mines – as examples.
“History tells us that safety technology of the coal mining industry will not advance unless it is forced – unless they are punished,” Rakes said,adding that severe disasters create a whiplash reaction and get the public's attention. (See accompanying story for details.)
West Virginia state lawmakers have already passed a bill encouraging strict enforcement of safety precautions and requiring better rescue training and tracking technology for miners.
On Monday,10 relatives of dead miners testified at a Congressional forum,pleading for a more proactive approach to mine safety. Many asked why – in the age of the BlackBerry and video iPods – available technology isn't being utilized to save lives.
A roundtable on available mine safety technology is scheduled for Wednesday with mine experts and company executives appearing before the Senate Employment and Workplace Safety Subcommittee.
In Canada,every mine has a refuge station equipped with food,water,air and supplies that is sealed to keep fumes out.
Nancy Hutchison,a health and safety coordinator for the United Steelworkers in Toronto,said at Monday's forum that these stations are a “necessary and expected part of the mining culture and industry” in Canada.
Rakes said there is a lag in developing safety technology because mine companies often focus on increasing production instead,he said.
Ventilation systems,continuous mining machines and battery-operated carts are all products of the 20th century that have increased production.
“But has that thought been applied to advancing safety technology?” Rakes asked. “I can't answer that,but I suspect it has not.”
The Mine Safety and Health Administration is committed to enforcing mine safety laws and researching new technology,said spokesman Dirk Fillpot. He pointed out that MSHA's actions led to the safest year on record in U.S. coal mines last year.
“MSHA is conducting a thorough and exhaustive investigation into these accidents to learn what caused them and to prevent future incidents,” Fillpot said.
But the families of dead miners said at the forum that the recent deaths could have been prevented if MSHA had been proactive.
A letter written by one of the Sago miners during the last hours of his life and read by his daughter shows the miners' helplessness. About eight hours after the explosion,11 of the 12 who died that day were still alive,according to the letter written by George Hamner Jr.
His widow,Deborah,pointed out that rescue teams could have saved the miners in that time with properly trained teams and communication equipment,such as transponders that would give the miners' exact location.
“We don't hear any attempts at drilling or rescue,” read his daughter Sarah Bailey from the letter,as she fought back tears. “I'm in no pain,but I don't know how long the air will last.”
One miner died immediately in the Sago blast. The other 11,who were trapped by smoke and fumes according to the letter,died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
One widow told members of Congress that her husband,who died in the 2001 Jim Walters mine explosion in Alabama,was identified by a single tooth,and his body lay underground for 43 days before it was brought to the surface.
“Those men scrambled around that day in that mine like a pack of rats,” said Wanda Blevins,her voice breaking as she spoke. “A simple thing like communication,and 13 men lay dead,including my husband.”
Rakes,a coal miner for 20 years,said that despite current safety technology,such as flowing air and reflective arrows that lead to safe areas,it is easy for even the most experienced miner to become disoriented after an explosion or injury. Remembering an explosion he escaped in the 1980s,Rakes said he had to belly crawl through a tunnel with only a water line to guide him.
“I couldn't put my hand above my head because the flesh would burn off,let alone raise my head to look around,” he said. “It's disorienting – I don't care how long a person has been underground.”
He said he hopes that will change with all the discussions the recent tragedies have prompted,adding that coal mining is a way of life for many West Virginians.
“It's an exciting job being in that world of movement that's constantly advancing,” he said. “But it's hard to revisit that part of my life.”