A year after the Sago Mine disaster, thousands of West Virginia coal miners are still waiting for the additional emergency breathing devices promised by Gov. Joe Manchin and the coal industry.Turns out Hamilton's "sense" is "nonsense."
Many of the state’s mine operators have placed orders with the nation’s largest manufacturer, CSE Corp., and could be waiting until late 2007 for delivery. CSE’s biggest competitor, Ocenco Inc., has an even longer waiting list.
“My sense is that there is a tremendous backorder,” said Chris Hamilton, a vice president for the West Virginia Coal Association.
At the same time, another supplier, the German company Draeger, has thousands of self-contained self-rescuers, or SCSRs, sitting in a warehouse.Uh, maybe they could try leafing through the phone book.
“We don’t have a backlog at all,” Wes Kenneweg, president of Draeger’s North American operations, said in an interview earlier this month.
At Draeger’s warehouse near the Pittsburgh airport, more than 6,500 of its OXY K-Plus units fill row after row of shelves.
“We haven’t had that many orders,” Kenneweg said.
And what's wrong with this picture? It seems that although the West Virginia and federal mine safety laws require mining companies to provide more rescue respirators throughout the mines, and provide a plan by last August for how many respirators must be provided and where they'll be located, Ward reports that
neither state nor federal officials have actually required companies to buy the devices and give them to miners.Of course, not everyone is happy to wait:
Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers, said that the union is concerned about delays in getting SCSRs into the nation’s coal mines.
“They need to have these units, and it’s obviously better to have them sooner rather than later,” Smith said.
***In his report on the Sago disaster, former MSHA chief Davitt McAteer urged the mining industry not to delay safety improvements waiting for complete answers or perfect technology.
“The unmistakable message of the Sago Mine disaster is that we cannot afford to wait,” McAteer wrote.
And it's not hard to understand why no more time should be lost. The need for improved respirators is nothing new. The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 required rescue respirators that would provide at least one hour of air, but the regulations that actually implemented the requirement were not finished until 1981. It became clear very soon that one hour of air was not enough, and the Clinton administration began the process of developing regulations to requre more respirators and better technologies. But -- and how many times have we heard this before? --
the effort wasn’t completed, and the Bush administration scuttled the proposal after taking office in 2001.
Reform of SCSR rules gained political traction again only after 12 miners died in the Jan. 2 Sago disaster, two more in the Aracoma fire and five in the Darby disaster.
Now, we have laws reqiring more and better respirators, but the companies seem to be shopping only at the establishments that have backlogs. And you don't want to interfere with their freedom to shop where they want:
I'm sure miners don't mind waiting....at least until the next fire.
Terry Farley, administrator for West Virginia’s mine safety office, said that his agency continues to accept purchase orders to show compliance. Soon, he said, inspectors may start asking to see letters from SCSR supplies showing estimated delivery dates.
“Our folks have been told to check and make sure nobody is stalling,” Farley said.Still, there’s little the state can do to force companies to switch to another company that has units available, Farley said.
“At this point, we cannot tell people what brand to buy,” Farley said.
Bruce Watzman, a lobbyist on safety issues for the National Mining Association, was surprised to hear that Draeger had so many units on hand.
“I thought the available units were being purchased and utilized,” Watzman said. “But that boils down to individual company decisions about what unit is the best for the needs of their employees.”