Feb. 10, 2006--Following a series of accidents that killed 16 miners in West Virginia in just over a month, the state has enacted a new law designed to make mines safer, but which also has small mining companies concerned about how to foot the bill.
The law, passed on Jan. 26, requires underground stockpiles of oxygen, as well as providing each miner with wireless emergency-communication devices capable of at least receiving one-way communication from above ground.
What form the exact regulations will take under the law are still being formulated, but there is some concern that the new costs will be a disproportionate burden on smaller mining operations.
The regulations will "hurt the small operator," said David Cline, the owner of the Rock N Roll Coal in Mohawk, W.Va. Cline, a miner since 1969, still works beside his 40 employees in the three-foot coal tunnels in his two mines. Cline is very proud of the Mountaineer Guardian Safety Award presented by the state to one of his mines last year, but he is also concerned that new regulations will be expensive -- without necessarily increasing mine safety.
Rock N Roll Coal had $7 million in revenue last year, with a net income of $700,000, according to Cline. Potentially paying more than $500,000 for new safety equipment is something he said he has a hard time contemplating.
Caryn Gresham, spokeswoman for the state's Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training, said that state officials are trying to work very closely with "all parts of the industry to come up with reasonable and valuable regulations that will make miners safer."
The federal agency that oversees mine safety cites "reliability issues" with one wireless communications device that is already being used in some mines to allow rescuers on the surface to send one-way text messages to trapped miners. Cline said he is concerned that it could cost him more than $100,000 to provide equipment to each of his miners that he doesn't believe have been shown to work in mines like his.
Backup oxygen supplies using chemical conversion are no more reliable, according to Cline. "It's like playing the slot machine," he said. And oxygen tanks can be a risk for explosions in fires.
Dan Alexander, a researcher at West Virginia University's department of mining engineering who studies mining accidents, said that the law calling for safety devices that aren't actually ready for commercial production follows the pattern of safety legislation passed after previous disasters. "As long as the inspecting agency understands that the technology is not fully there yet, and works with the companies along the way, then it's not necessarily a bad thing," he said.
Alexander acknowledged that there are risks and tragedies in coal mining, but said the industry is very safe overall. "I take more risk driving to work than I do going into a mine."
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) has authored a measure to offer federal tax breaks to underground mines buying safety equipment. The measure is attached to a broader tax bill still under consideration by Congress.