A year after the Sago Mine disaster, thousands of West Virginia coal miners are still waiting for the additional emergency breathing devices promised by Gov. Joe Manchin and the coal industry.
Many of the state's mine operators have placed orders with the nation's largest manufacturer, CSE Corp., and could be waiting until late 2007 for delivery. CSE's biggest competitor, Ocenco Inc., has an even longer waiting list.
"My sense is that there is a tremendous backorder," said Chris Hamilton, a vice president for the West Virginia Coal Association.
At the same time, another supplier, the German company Draeger, has thousands of self-contained self-rescuers, or SCSRs, sitting in a warehouse.
"We don't have a backlog at all," Wes Kenneweg, president of Draeger's North American operations, said in an interview earlier this month.
At Draeger's warehouse near the Pittsburgh airport, more than 6,500 of its OXY K-Plus units fill row after row of shelves.
"We haven't had that many orders," Kenneweg said.
After Sago, state and federal lawmakers ordered mining companies to provide additional emergency breathing devices to underground coal miners.
But now, regulators are accepting purchase orders as proof of compliance. No one has set firm dates for mine operators to actually give miners the additional SCSRs.
Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers, said that the union is concerned about delays in getting SCSRs into the nation's coal mines.
"They need to have these units, and it's obviously better to have them sooner rather than later," Smith said.
On a variety of fronts, mine safety reforms enacted in the wake of Sago, the Aracoma Mine fire and the Darby disaster will be months - or years - in actually being enforced.
s Better communications systems - In West Virginia, the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training is not requiring mine operators to submit plans for new wireless communications systems until Aug. 31, 2007. And, as they are with SCSRs, state regulators will then accept purchase orders for compliance, with no firm legal deadline for actually installing the equipment.
s Rescue shelters - Nationwide, Congress declined to require companies to install underground rescue chambers until the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health completes another study of the topic. The study isn't due until December 2007.
s Mine rescue teams - Congress ordered additional rescue teams be provided by mining companies, but gave the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration until the end of next year to write regulations to implement that requirement.
In his report on the Sago disaster, former MSHA chief Davitt McAteer urged the mining industry not to delay safety improvements waiting for complete answers or perfect technology.
"The unmistakable message of the Sago Mine disaster is that we cannot afford to wait," McAteer wrote.
Between 1950 and 1969, about one-fifth of the miners killed on the job died from asphyxiation from smoke, carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide following fires or explosions, according to a 1970 study by the National Academy of Engineering.
In response to such deaths, Congress in the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 required coal operators must provide each miner with a "self-rescue device" that provides oxygen for "one hour or longer."
Rules to actually implement the requirement were not written until 1981, including an additional year's delay in a two-year phase-in period that operators demanded because they said they could not get the devices shipped fast enough.
Industry officials and regulators knew for years that the one-hour oxygen provided by a single SCSR was not enough for many miners to safely escape deep mines across the country.
During the Clinton administration, McAteer tried to push for more units and improved technology. But the effort wasn't completed, and the Bush administration scuttled the proposal after taking office in 2001.
Reform of SCSR rules gained political traction again only after 12 miners died in the Jan. 2 Sago disaster, two more in the Aracoma fire and five in the Darby disaster.
In West Virginia, Manchin pushed through legislation to require additional caches of SCSRs throughout underground mines. Nationally, MSHA began to require - and then Congress wrote into law - a similar mandate.
Under both programs, mine operators were required to give regulators plans by August 2006 for how many SCSRs they would add and where they would be located underground.
So far, though, neither state nor federal officials have actually required companies to buy the devices and give them to miners.
"Purchase orders are sufficient for the time being for being in compliance," said Dirk Fillpot, spokesman for MSHA.
Government and industry officials have not been able to provide a firm number for how many additional SCSRs might be needed nationwide.
In West Virginia, one state consultant said in an October report that the state's rule would triple - to about 35,000 - the number of SCSRs in the state's mines. Figures for the number of units needed nationally have ranged from 50,000 to 100,000.
In May, a West Virginia mine safety task force said that SCSR manufacturers were reporting, "shipping delays exceeding six months due to manufacturing capability limitations."
A tiny share of the market
Draeger is hardly a new name in the breathing device business. As early as the 1920s, the company was making gear used by mine rescue teams.
In the 1980s, Draeger controlled more than 20 percent of the SCSR market in the nation's coal industry. It was second only to Ocenco, which sold about half of all units, according to government reports.
Then in the early 1990s, working on a government contract, CSE Corp. developed its new SR-100 model. It was smaller and weighed less than other SCSRs.
Today, CSE provides nearly two-thirds of the SCSRs used in U.S. coal mines. Ocenco is the second biggest manufacturer. Draeger has a tiny share of the market.
Many coal operators are turning to CSE for more units to meet new government rules.
Normally, CSE would make about 1,000 units per month, said company President Scott Shearer. Now, production is up "substantially," he says. Still, CSE has a backlog of orders, and Shearer expects it to take at least 10 months to fill all of its existing orders.
The coal association's Hamilton says that he believes bad publicity about problems with the CSE models used at Sago and Darby will hurt the company. Many operators, Hamilton said, are switching to the units made by Ocenco.
For one thing, Hamilton said, the Ocenco units actually contain compressed oxygen, rather than generating fresh air through a chemical reaction.
Pat Droppleman, president of Ocenco, said that his company's business has picked up. But he offers a different explanation.
The Ocenco units, called the EBA 6.5, are slightly larger and provide more oxygen than the CSE units, Droppleman said.
When government rules simply required one SCSR belt-wearable per miner, mine operators went with the smaller, easier-to-carry CSE models. Now that the rules also require mines to store SCSRs in caches underground, mine operators see no reason not to go with the larger Ocenco units that provide more air, Droppleman said.
Droppleman said his company has hired more workers and ramped up production. But delivery times are still ranging from 10 to 14 months, he said.
"There are huge backlogs," Droppleman said.
Not so at Draeger, said Kenneweg. The stockpile at the company's Pittsburgh warehouse ranges from 6,500 to 10,000 units every day.
The Draeger unit is slightly larger and heavier than CSE's SR-100, and many miners consider it uncomfortable to wear during work. But it is licensed for use underground by MSHA, and regulators in West Virginia and Kentucky bought them earlier this year to replace their own damaged CSE models.
Terry Farley, administrator for West Virginia's mine safety office, said that his agency continues to accept purchase orders to show compliance. Soon, he said, inspectors may start asking to see letters from SCSR supplies showing estimated delivery dates.
"Our folks have been told to check and make sure nobody is stalling," Farley said.
Still, there's little the state can do to force companies to switch to another company that has units available, Farley said.
"At this point, we cannot tell people what brand to buy," Farley said.
Bruce Watzman, a lobbyist on safety issues for the National Mining Association, was surprised to hear that Draeger had so many units on hand.
"I thought the available units were being purchased and utilized," Watzman said. "But that boils down to individual company decisions about what unit is the best for the needs of their employees."
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.
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