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Lack of spare emergency masks putting miners in `grave danger'

WASHINGTON—Federal mine safety officials, who four years ago axed a requirement to stock coal mines with spare emergency air masks to protect miners from poisonous gases, now say workers are in "grave danger" without those breathing devices.

Following back-to-back mining accidents in West Virginia that killed 14 men last month, the Bush administration is reviving a rule that would require the added supplies of the masks and the training to use them.

Without those requirements, which were killed eight months into President Bush's first term in 2001, bureaucrats at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) now warn that coal miners "face serious physical injury and death," according to a draft of the proposed regulation obtained by Knight Ridder.

The changes come as investigators now believe that the two deaths in the Jan. 12 accident at the Aracoma Alma mine may have been caused, at least in part, by difficulty in donning breathing devices, a source close to the investigation, who asked not to be identified, told Knight Ridder on Tuesday.

In 1999, MSHA proposed strengthening standards on breathing devices, including requiring mines to stock "caches" of extra rescue devices and conduct more frequent hands-on training in how to use them. But by September 2001, the Bush administration withdrew the draft rule, citing "resource constraints and changing safety and health regulatory priorities."

David Lauriski, the former Bush mine safety official who put the rule aside, is having second thoughts. "In retrospect, maybe we ought to have had requirements for more caches" of the breathing devices, he said Tuesday.

MSHA now apparently agrees.

"Without these devices and training, miners are exposed to grave danger because they are not prepared to take action on their behalf to safely escape from the mine," the proposed rule said.

The bulky breathing masks—called self-contained self-rescue devices (SCSR)—along with training and lifelines of rope leading out of mines, are critical, the rule said.

The devices provide about an hour's worth of air, and every miner and visitor has to have one with or near them. The issue is whether to require extra ones scattered about the mine in case more time is needed to escape after a fire, explosion or other mine emergency.

The proposed rule concluded that there is now a "lack of availability" of those extra breathing devices.

MSHA spokesman Dirk Fillpot would not discuss the decision to withdraw the rule in 2001. Instead, he touted the new proposal as the "first time MSHA will require additional SCSRs in underground coal mines."

Late Tuesday, after inquiries by Knight Ridder, MSHA publicly announced the proposed rule.

Tony Oppegard, a former senior MSHA official during the Clinton administration and Kentucky mine safety attorney, said: "The reality is that they're fixing something that they screwed up the first time. ... Better late than never."

Lauriski, who was MSHA's chief from 2001 to 2004, said the decision to forego the air mask rule was the result of a large workload left over by the Clinton administration. At the time, he said, it did not seem to be timely and could be revived later.

"They were taken off not by the whim of a pencil. They were taken off by research and study," Lauriski said Tuesday. "I find it a little bit ironic, maybe a lot ironic, that when we discussed this in 2001, there was none of this discussion of grave dangers."

Lauriski said he had hoped breathing mask technology would improve so new rules wouldn't be needed. Little has changed, he said.

The issue of the breathing devices, and poor training, became apparent after a 1984 Utah mine disaster that killed 27 miners. A 1987 MSHA report on the disaster concluded that many of the miners were not adequately trained in using the devices and that they were not in enough places for miners to get them.

Lauriski was the safety and training director for the company that owned the Utah mine.

R. Larry Grayson, chairman of the Mine Safety Technology and Training Commission for the National Mining Association, the industry lobby, said that in hindsight the 2001 withdrawal of the rule was too hasty.

"The industry was lulled into a false sense of security because we just weren't having many fatalities," said Grayson, who is also a mining engineering professor at the University of Missouri at Rolla. "I'd say we've let our guard down over the years."

Extra breathing devices "is something that could be done to increase those odds" of survival, Grayson said. "There is going to be some increase in the probability of survival if additional SCSRs are there."

The federal investigation into the mine accidents in West Virginia is continuing. West Virginia, the location of many of the east coast's mines, recently increased the number of breathing devices available in the mines. Kentucky is considering similar measures.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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