MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Federal regulators and safety officials should consider requiring more backup air supplies and work to develop better breathing devices that would help the nation's coal miners escape underground emergencies, a panel of experts said in a report released Thursday.
The report from the National Research Council makes seven wide-ranging recommendations to two agencies — the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the National Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Among other things, it urges better technology, including systems for communicating with people on the surface, real-time gas monitors and fail-safe tracking devices.
The independent, nonprofit National Research Council is the main operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences. The report was authored by a nine-member committee of experts with universities, the private sector, NASA and the United Mine Workers of America.
The report doesn't propose new laws or regulations, instead focusing on ways to better equip the nation's 50,000 underground miners.
Few will ever have to evacuate, but deeply ingrained training can prevent hesitation or confusion when they do, the panel said.
MSHA didn't immediately comment on the report, which grew in part from several West Virginia mine disasters.
In 2006, 12 men died after an explosion trapped them at International Coal Group's Sago Mine. Randal McCloy, the only miner to survive the 40-hour wait for a rescue in poisoned air, later told investigators that several air packs his crew had been carrying failed.
Last year, MSHA ordered mine operators to begin phasing out that model of "self-contained self-rescuer," the SR-100, after it proved unreliable in tests. All of the estimated 66,000 potentially defective air packs must be out of U.S. mines by the end of this year, and CSE Corp. of Monroeville, Pa., no longer manufactures that model.
Many air packs were stored in the emergency caches required under a federal law passed after Sago.
Mine operators are supposed to supply at least two hours of emergency air per miner and stash more air packs in escapeways. No miner should have to walk more than 30 minutes to reach one, and they are to be available in regular intervals the whole way to the surface.
Scrutiny of both industry and regulators has increased since Sago, though the report says more must be done. The Upper Big Branch mine explosion, which killed 29 West Virginia miners in April 2010, is "a reminder to remain ever vigilant."