Regulators looking at escape bunkers in coal mines

Originating from the end of 2008, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) rules require underground coal mines to construct “refuge alternatives” to safeguard workers during an emergency or accident and train workers on how to use them.

On Wednesday, the MSHA – which is housed in the Labor Department – submitted a “prerule” to the White House hoping to amend those regulations. Although the specific changes are not yet known, the agency says, “continuous development of refuge equipment and technology is crucial to enhancing the effectiveness of escape and refuge.”

The prerule request simply indicates an agency is considering taking action on a topic in hopes of receiving feedback from the public.

MSHA has expressed concern in the past about the condition of parts that are being used to construct the bunkers. Last summer, it had a stakeholder meeting to release the results of investigations that found widespread issues with brass fittings and valves in West Virginia coal mines.

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An “OSHA laboratory indicated brass fittings are on path to failure,” the agency said in a PowerPoint for the meeting, and suffered from cracks and corrosion that the state-level MSHA missed during compliance inspections.

Further, several instances of “catastrophic failure” were found in components of oxygen tanks inside the post-damage “refuge alternatives” for miners, which include special chambers that provide oxygen to workers and block toxic chemicals while they await rescue.

In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it would begin researching the effectiveness of the bunkers. About 40,000 mine workers work in underground coal mines in the United States, according to CDC data.

“The fact that no coal miners have used a refuge alternative leaves the industry still not knowing for certain if survival for 96 hours is possible,” according to agency documents. “Because of the rapid implementation and introduction of refuge alternatives into underground coal mines, it is believed that the most survivable refuge alternatives have yet to be developed and placed in U.S. underground coal mines.”

Older, more seasoned coal miners told the agency they are not likely to use the space “because of a lack of confidence in its ability to provide a survivable environment.”

Although younger workers said they would likely go to “the refuge alternative and wait for rescue as opposed to escaping first,” the CDC research and testing hopes to mollify concerns about safety, it said.

A previous report by the CDC’s Office of Mine Safety and Health Research examined coal-mine accidents since 1970 — including floods, explosions, fires and other disasters that killed at least one miner — and found that 29 percent of fatalities could have been prevented by a refuge.

The regulations stem from the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act of 2006, which Congress passed after the deadly explosion at the Sago coal mine in West Virginia. That accident trapped 13 miners for two days, and only one survived the toxic fumes.