Sunday, January 08, 2006

Bush Administration Dropped Mine Rescue Improvement Regulation in 2002

In the wake of evidence that the Sago miners were alive at least 10 hours after the blast, questions are being raised about whether the 12 miners killed in the Sago mine explosion could have been saved had the rescue effort been mounted sooner in light. A note left by one of the dead miners, 61-year-old shuttle car operator Jim Bennett, indicated that he was alive and lucid at least 10 hours after the explosion.

In addition, today's Charleston Gazette revealed that although it's been well recognized for almost ten years "that the nation’s miners face a mounting risk because of a rescue system that is growing ever short on personnel and is in major need of reforms," former Bush administration MSHA director Dave Lauriski halted work on revising MSHA's 15-year old mine rescue regulation in 2002.

The Sago mine did not have its own rescue team and had to call for help from other mines. Federal law requires mines to have two rescue teams available, but does not require mines to have their own rescue teams as long as another team can arrive on site within two hours. According to the NY Times,
There was no rescue team on the mine site, so teams had to be called in from other mines, a process that might have been slowed by holiday vacations, rescue officials said. The closest federal team, in Morgantown about 70 miles away, had lost members to attrition and took several more hours to deploy, said J. Davitt McAteer, a former assistant secretary of mine safety and health under the Clinton administration.

And once the teams arrived at the site, equipment had to be mustered, maps reviewed and air quality tested. There were concerns about fire. The result was that the first teams did not enter the mine until more than 11 hours after the explosion, the mine company's owner, International Coal Group, said.


Though it always takes time for teams to review maps, check equipment and develop a strategy, critics of the mining company, including the mine workers' union, have questioned why it took so long for the teams to be allowed into the mine.

Matt Barkett, a spokesman for the mine's owner, said the main reason for the delay was concern about high carbon monoxide levels inside the mine, which were initially measured at 1,300 parts per million, enough to kill a person without a respirator within minutes. He said the high levels had raised concerns about fire.
But an article in today's Charleston Gazette indicated that the company had a different explanation for the delay:
ICG general counsel Roger Nicholson explained the delay this way: “I would say that it’s merely a fact of mustering, getting your equipment and heading to the mine site, which is somewhat remote, comparatively speaking.”

Officials from MSHA have not released a timeline of the rescue effort, or any documents — such as logs of the rescue team arrival times and the mine carbon monoxide tests — that might explain the delay more completely.

McAteer was not impressed by the company's excuse:
“If you’re in Alaska, I could see it taking 12 hours,” said McAteer, a Marion County native. “But you’re in West Virginia. It should not take 12 hours to get teams together.”
Rescue abilities near the Sago mine have deteriorated in the past several years.

A few years ago, the Sago Mine could have gotten a rescue crew from MSHA’s nearby district office in Morgantown. But the Morgantown MSHA office no longer has its own mine rescue team.

“We don’t really don’t have a team, per se,” said Kevin Stricklin, MSHA’s Morgantown district manager. “We have an MSHA-wide unit now.”

Instead of a six-person, stand-alone team in Morgantown, MSHA now has three Morgantown staffers assigned to a 30-person nationwide agency emergency crew.
More disturbing is the investigative article that appeared in today's Charleston Gazette that reported that former Bush administration MSHA director Dave Lauriski had halted work on revising MSHA's 15-year old mine rescue regulation, even thought it is well known that the nation's mine rescue system is rapidly deterioriating.

Over the past 30 years, the number of teams taking part in the once-popular national mine safety contest has dropped by nearly 70 percent, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration records.

From 2000 to 2002 alone, the number of MSHA-approved safety teams nationwide dropped by 10 percent.


Since at least 1995, the United Mine Workers union repeatedly has warned about the “depleted rescue team structure in this country.”

In a 2002 letter to MSHA, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety wrote that the “loss of experience” and “lack of readily available” rescue team members “has been dramatic.”

As rescuers retire, their positions are going unfilled. Smaller coal companies are opting not to have their own teams, and instead contracting out to rescue companies.

More than a decade ago, a major federal report prepared by a conference of industry, labor and rescue team representatives urged speedy action by MSHA to do something to reverse the troubling erosion of the country’s mine emergency response system.

In 1999, McAteer who headed MSHA under the Clinton Administration, began the process of upgrading the agency’s mine rescue rules and program. As usual in workplace safety rulemaking, industry and labor had differing approaches. Industry representatives wanted breaks in citations and fines if they funded rescue teams, and the mineworkers union feared that the new rules would give industry too much of what it wanted in the way of more flexible rules. Nevertheless, Bush's MSHA director, Dave Lauriski, promised a draft regulation by September of 2002. But on December 9, 2002 Lauriski announced that “MSHA is withdrawing this item and plans to evaluate non-regulatory alternatives.”

It's still unclear whether or not a rescue could possibly have been mounted and reached the workers on time. There is not doubt that, given the chance of further explosion and high carbon monoxide levels, extreme care had to be taken not to kill the rescuers. In 2001, 13 miners were killed in the Brookwood mine in Alabama and 11 of them were rescuers killed in an explosion.

The Gazette notes that the 1977 rewrite of the Mine Safety and Health Act required MSHA
to write new regulations to “provide that mine rescue teams shall be available for rescue and recovery work to each underground coal or other mine in the event of an emergency.”

The law added that, “the costs of making advance arrangements for such teams shall be borne by the operator of each such mine.”

Was the agency complying with its mandate? Congressional hearings or a truly independent investigation would be better able to look the effect of the nation's deteriorating rescue ability and MSHA's failure to ugrade its standards than the mine safety agency itself.