Monday, January 30, 2006

Canadian Miners Rescued; Why Can't It Happen Here?

The safe rescue of 72 Canadian potash miners from an underground fire was major news today -- in tragic contrast to the fourteen miners recently killed in West Virginia due to mine explosions and fires. The Canadian miners spent the night in airtight chambers packed with enough oxygen, food and water for several days.

The obvious question is: Why can't that happen here?

According to Davitt McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration and is currently leading West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin's mine disaster investigation:
the safety chambers in the Mosaic mine in Canada's central Saskatchewan province were key to the miners' survival.

"I think that the question of the existence of the chamber that provided oxygen, food and protection is fundamentally important in any kind of a mine," he said. He acknowledged, however, that potash mines are not nearly as dangerous as those for coal - where an initial explosion can provoke a secondary one 10 times as strong.

There are no such chambers in U.S. mines, he said, because back in the late 1970s, the U.S. government determined there was no material strong enough to withstand the secondary explosion. Since then, he said, NASA and the Defense Department have created stronger materials.

"If you can build a black box to withstand an explosion in an airplane, why can't you build one to escape an explosion in a mine?" he asked.
One article noted that
"The mine scare raised memories of a fatal explosion in a West Virginia coal mine earlier this month. Twelve miners were killed and one injured in that blast."
A more accurate sentence would read:
"The mine scare raised memories of a fatal explosion in a West Virginia coal mine earlier this month. One miner was killed in the blast, but eleven others were asphyxiated waiting due to inadequate supplies of emergency oxygen."

More mine disaster stories here.