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UPDATED: Advocates Urge Action on Mine Refuge Chambers

August 5, 2008

By Jim Warren, The Lexington Herald-Leader, Ky.

Aug. 5–The daughter of a coal miner killed in the 2006 Darby Mine explosion in Harlan County told federal mining officials in Lexington on Tuesday that her father might have survived if the mine had been equipped with an underground safety chamber.

Tracy North, whose father, Paris Thomas, was among five miners lost in the Harlan incident, urged officials with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to push ahead with a proposed regulation requiring such shelters in underground coal mines.

“I hope this goes through for other miners,” she said, “so their families don’t have to experience the loss we have.”

But Lexington attorney Tony Oppegard urged mining officials to make some changes in the proposed regulation. The way the rule is now drafted, Oppegard contended, the Darby Mine probably wouldn’t have qualified for a shelter.

The comments came during several hours of testimony Tuesday at an MSHA hearing at Hilton Suites at Lexington Green to gather reaction to the agency’s proposed mine shelter regulation. The final public hearing on the proposed regulations is set for Thursday in Birmingham, Ala.

The underground shelters are small, airtight metal cells, containing food, water, toilet facilities and enough oxygen to sustain a few miners for up to four days. After an underground accident, miners would wait inside the shelters, protected from deadly carbon monoxide gas and other threats, until rescuers reached them.

The shelter proposal is required under safety legislation Congress passed after explosions at the Kentucky Darby Mine and at West Virginia’s Sago Mine killed a total of 17 coal miners in 2006.

On Tuesday, Oppegard told MSHA officials that 14 miners who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in those two incidents probably would have lived if the mines had been equipped with shelters.

But the MSHA proposal has drawn some opposition.

West Virginia mining officials attacked the plan at a hearing in Charleston last month, arguing that MSHA’s proposal conflicts with their own state mine shelter plan. They also argued that the federal agency proposes shelters that are unnecessarily large and overstocked with supplies.

The feedback was more positive in Lexington Tuesday. But concerns were raised over which mines the shelters should be placed in, and exactly where they should be positioned.

Oppegard said that, under the current plan, shelters wouldn’t be required in mines where miners can walk out to the surface in as little as 30 minutes. But he said the Kentucky Darby mine is so small that someone probably could walk out of it in 20 minutes under normal conditions.

Thus, Oppegard argued, the regulation as now written probably wouldn’t require a safety shelter in the Darby mine. That should be changed, he said.

A requirement that shelters be between 1,000 and 2,000 feet from a mine’s working face also needs fixing, Oppegard said.

He said that if a shelter had been located, say, 1,800 feet from the working face at the Darby mine, it would not have saved the lives.

Oppegard noted that some men crawled more than 1,400 feet through the Darby mine before dying from toxic fumes. They would never have reached a shelter 1,800 feet away, he said.

Paul Ledford, the one man who escaped the Darby mine explosion, supported that testimony. Ledford crawled more than 1,500 feet, passing out at least once, before rescuers found him.

Ledford also criticized part of the federal regulation that says that, as an alternative, mine operators could place materials in a mine which miners could use build a shelter after an explosion.

Ledford argued that because a mine would be filled with dust, and possibly toxic gas, after an explosion, miners would be unable to construct a shelter in time to save their lives.

Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, also questioned parts of the shelter proposal, arguing among other things that some of MSHA’s design requirements are based on technology that has not yet been perfected.

MSHA hopes to complete the shelter regulation by year’s end.

Reach Jim Warren at 1-800-950-6397 Ext. 3255 or 859-231-3255

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