TOPICS > Health

Assessing Coal Mining Safety

January 4, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: We have a two-part look at the tragic events of the past day: First, an on-the-ground report from the West Virginia coal town of Sago; then a wider look at mine safety and how it’s changed.

Our on-the-scene report comes from Emily Corio of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Emily Corio, welcome. Thanks for being with us.

Give was a sense of what it’s like in Sago today, after this intense 48 hours that these townspeople have been through.

EMILY CORIO: Well, it’s a lot quieter here in Sago today. People are cleaning up; they’re cleaning up the church, the shelter that has been the place for the families to stay for the last couple of days.

There’s still an awful lot of attention here with the media. But as far as the families, they have left mostly, and it’s just kind of volunteers who are staying around and cleaning up.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, a lot of — it wasn’t just the townspeople, but a lot of mainstream newspapers in the early hours of this morning reported that, in fact, all these miners had been found alive, 12 had been found alive. What have you been able to piece together since then about how this confusion happened?

EMILY CORIO: Well, the company officials had a press conference later this afternoon and they said that the confusion really happened in the mine, that the rescuers, somewhere between the rescuers getting the message back to a command post, I believe they called it the fresh air spot, that there was a failure in communication there.

And so the command station received the information that 12 miners were found alive. And then that information was relayed to the public, and the company official wasn’t quite sure how the people found out because he said that, you know, he never relayed to the people in the church that 12 miners were, in fact, alive.

MARGARET WARNER: It sounded from what I heard from the briefing today, that, in fact, there was such jubilation, didn’t he say, in the command center up on the surface, that even though everyone had been told don’t make phone calls, don’t say anything until we know something for sure, that word just spread?

EMILY CORIO: Yes, that’s right. In fact, I think he said it spread like wildfire. At least that’s the phrase I’ve been hearing people say today. This is a, you know, a small community. So a lot of people know each other. A lot of people either know or are related to someone who was in the mine.

So the news also could have spread just because people wanted to relay information to friends and family members.

MARGARET WARNER: And is it the case that even the governor was telling people that this had happened?

EMILY CORIO: I have heard that anecdotally that that did, in fact, happen. But I’m not sure if the governor did, in fact, tell someone that all 12 miners are alive.

The company official said that the governor gave him a big bear hug in the lot outside of the command center when that news had been announced.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, explain what happened next. It was about 45 minutes to an hour later, they got in this command center, at 12:40 A.M., they got word, a completely different version, that only one miner had been found alive and the rest were dead.

What did he say to explain — we’ve run a little bit, a clip of him, but explain further it took them so long, from 12:40 till 3:00 A.M., nearly, to get to the church and really tell the families that, in fact, the bad news that had occurred?

EMILY CORIO: The company CEO, Ben Hatfield, said at the press conference this afternoon that what they heard was that one miner came out alive. And he did not want to say that the other miners were, in fact, dead until he had heard that they were dead. He thought that perhaps they might be in a comatose state. He did mention that that could have been a possibility.

But they also said that the day before, I believe, they had — or excuse me, just a few hours before, when one dead body had been found, and they weren’t sure who it was, that the family members were frustrated with getting that information because it wasn’t very clear.

And so they were also concerned about going back over to the church and saying, well, there’s been a change of events, now, we’re not so sure that that information, that 12 miners are alive, is not correct; we’re now getting conflicting information.

MARGARET WARNER: And what did he say about – or what do they know now about the 12 miners who did die, how they died?

EMILY CORIO: Well, they still are not saying how they died, or what they think caused it, caused their death. They would not either talk about how they were found; they wanted to first discuss that with the families.

They just said that they had, it looks like they had tried to put up kind of a rough barrier between themselves and the toxic air in the mine. And they were found wearing their self-rescue gear, which probably gave them about an hour to breathe off this oxygen before they would have to rely on the air within the place where they had barricaded themselves.

MARGARET WARNER: And then the one survivor, this Randal McCloy, was found with those other 11, is that right, behind that sort of flimsy barricade?

EMILY CORIO: Yes, I believe that is correct.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Emily Corio, thank you so much for being with us.

EMILY CORIO: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, an assessment of the state of safety in the coal mining industry, which historically has had a reputation as a dangerous business. For that, we turn to Bruce Dial, a former mine inspector who had a 25-year career with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. He now runs his own safety and training consulting company.

And Mr. Dial, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

BRUCE DIAL: Good to be here.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you. How dangerous is coal mining today as compared to the past?

BRUCE DIAL: Well, coal mining today is much safer than it was say even 30 years ago. One of the reasons is that the New Mine Act passed in 1977, which made the inspections, when the inspector goes on to a mine site and they write violations there is a monetary fine on every citation that they write.

Other things, there are new technologies, like long wall systems, coal systems and things like that, that get out more coal with less employees.

Used to, to run a heading it would take about 25 employees. Today, a heading is typically run with five to 10 people. So there are less people in the mine.

MARGARET WARNER: A heading being the machine that’s cutting into the side of the —

BRUCE DIAL: Right, a heading would be — right, a heading would be where they’re going into the bed of coal and removing the coal itself.

MARGARET WARNER: Can you quantify it in terms of fatalities? I think I read today that in the ’30s and ’40s there used to be 1,000 miners killed practically every year.

BRUCE DIAL: Yes. If you go on the MSHA Web site, there’s a chart on there that will show you way back in the early 1900s how many people were killed in the mines a year.

There were thousands killed in the early 1900s. Even up into the 1970s, they averaged about 150 a year; the early 1980s, about 120.

But since 1985, they have been able to keep the number of fatalities in coal mines less than 100. This past year, I believe there was 25 fatalities.

MARGARET WARNER: But since there are so many fewer miners working, I gather there are only maybe one-third as many miners working in underground mines like this as in the heyday of coal mining, is it simply there are fewer miners so there are fewer fatalities, or is it actually safer to be a coal miner for the other reasons that you had explained?

BRUCE DIAL: Well, naturally the less people working, the less people that can be killed. But a lot of the technology, and the new way of mining with all of the safety procedures that’s been implemented, that’s the biggest reason that coal is safer today than it was even 20 years ago.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how aggressive are these inspections? It’s been reported that the Sago Mine had been issued citations by your former agency, safety violations, something like 200 of them in 2005, a fourfold increase over the previous year.

Now, would that ring alarm bells? And what is the trigger for actually shutting down a mine?

BRUCE DIAL: Well, when an inspector is required to inspect a mine, an underground mine four times a year, that means the complete mine has to be inspected, once each quarter, the mine operator does not know when the inspector is coming to the mine to do the inspection. So they can’t prepare for him before he gets there.

But when he gets to the mine, he just starts in, he goes through whatever part of the mine he wants to, and he’s looking for violations of the code — Federal Code 30, Part 75. And as he finds a violation, he would write a citation. Each citation has to be graded so to speak. They have what they call S and S: significant and substantial.

If a violation is serious, and it could cause harm to somebody, it would be significant and substantial. And the fine would be up to about $250 for each citation.

MARGARET WARNER: But that doesn’t actually sound like a lot when you’re talking about a huge coal company.

BRUCE DIAL: No, it’s not a lot. It’s kind of like you get a speeding ticket. If you get caught speeding, the trooper gives you a speeding ticket. He doesn’t shut you down. If you want to, as soon as he leaves, you can speed again. But you’re taking a chance of getting another fine.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, explain to us —

BRUCE DIAL: And you’re raising points.

MARGARET WARNER: I’m sorry. To a layman, a little more about the technology — for instance, is there better ventilation in the mines? Are there other ways in which miners are protected from dust or from explosions that — or certain toxic gases that didn’t exist, say, 30 years ago?

BRUCE DIAL: Yes. The ventilation systems have improved, not only the more powerful fans, but they’ve developed ways and different materials to make stoppings that will not be as much friction for the air to pass through the line.

Also, they have passed regulations that require a mine operator to keep 9,000 cubic feet of air going across the working place at all times.

Used to, you could go into a mine and you couldn’t even — could hardly feel the air moving in the mine. So it’s like working with a breeze going by all the time. You can feel the air moving. So that helps keep the gases out of the mine and out into the atmosphere.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what about coal miners’ health? I’m thinking of black lung disease. I think I read today that in 1999, there were still 1,500 miners who died, or former miners that year, of black lung disease. Is that better?

BRUCE DIAL: Yeah, the improved ventilation has helped black lung situation. Before, whenever a person was working in the heading, there was no ventilation in there at all. That meant all the dust that was being liberated from the mining itself was just kind of staying in the air. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, basically, because of all the dust in the air.

Nowadays, with the ventilation, it keeps all that dust away from your breathing zone. And you will — you won’t have to breathe a lot of dust.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, just from reading about the miners who were involved in this tragic accident, it does appear that being a miner is still a family tradition despite the dangers.

I think the young man who is a survivor was quoted by his wife as saying he knew it was dangerous, he really didn’t want to do it but he did it. Is that the case in communities like these — this, and, if so, why?

BRUCE DIAL: Well, in an area like where this accident occurred, mining is really the only big industry where a person can make a very good wage. The average miner will earn $50,000 to $60,000 a year, with overtime, maybe, up to as much as $80,000 a year.

It is a bad environment. It can be a very safe environment as long as everybody follows the regulations and everybody is meticulous on how they do the work.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Bruce Dial, thank you very much for being with us.

BRUCE DIAL: My pleasure.