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Mine Safety Issues Examined as Search Continues For Coal Miners

January 3, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: The latest on the search for the trapped miners in West Virginia. Jeffrey Brown spoke by phone a short time ago with Ann Scott Tyson. She’s covering the story for The Washington Post.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ann, what kind of progress have rescuers been able to make today?

ANN SCOTT TYSON: There was discouraging news from the very start because of the high carbon monoxide levels that they discovered. A robot that they had hoped could move ahead more quickly of the rescue teams also became bogged down in mud.

And so far, the rescue teams themselves that are moving primarily on foot at a very slow and methodical pace have been the best way to try to reach these miners. And they have made steady progress but it has been slow.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you know yet how far they’ve been able to get into the tunnel?

ANN SCOTT TYSON: As of earlier today when we had our last update, they were more than 10,000 feet in. By now, they could have made quite a bit further headway, depending on how much repairs of the ventilation system they had to make while they were moving ahead.

JEFFREY BROWN: Give us a sense of the scope of the rescue effort, if you would. How many teams are there? Where are they coming from? How much activity is there around you?

ANN SCOTT TYSON: There are about 14 teams, about 90 specialized mine rescuers at the latest count. They have brought in some drilling equipment to drill holes again to send sensors down that can measure the air and also cameras down to look around and to try to — and microphones — to try to hear any signs of life so it’s an extensive effort, but it has not yet involved any huge equipment to drill larger holes because they simply felt they could reach it more quickly by going through the mines because they have not found the debris or massive destruction that might have been caused — mainly just destruction of the air vents, of the air ventilation system.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned the first hole that had been drilled and then company officials said they were going to drill two more holes. What can you tell us about those?

ANN SCOTT TYSON: Those two are in other areas. One is mainly a hole they have to drill so the rescuers can proceed beyond a certain point. The other was another place where they thought the miners might be located. It would give them a look at another area and another attempt to rescue — to reach these miners and gauge the quality of the air there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ann, what is known about the trapped miners? How experienced are they, how familiar with this particular mine?

ANN SCOTT TYSON: They’re very experienced. Nine of the thirteen have more than 30 years of experience, definitely not a rookie team in any sense as the mining officials put it.

However, I’m not sure about their familiarity with this mine. This mine, some of the miners I know, have only been working there for one or two years. Nevertheless, extensive mining experience from this group that includes several men in their 40s and 50s.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what can you tell us about their families who are awaiting word? Where are they? Has their mood changed during the day of activities?

ANN SCOTT TYSON: It certainly has. I think that the mood has become much more somber after this morning’s learning of the highly toxic levels of carbon monoxide in the area at the head of the mine.

I think people are holding on to hope. They certainly don’t want to give up. But they will acknowledge that in the back of their minds they have to brace for the worst.

And you know, they said to me, one woman said, you know, it’s bad. The feeling is a very sad feeling. Some people, when told about these readings of the air this morning, broke down and cried. One woman at one point had to be taken away in an ambulance. So I think there’s a desire to continue hope but I think people deep down are realistic about the sobering possibilities.

JEFFREY BROWN: We’ve been hearing today about some health and safety violations by this company. What can you tell us about its overall record?

ANN SCOTT TYSON: It has had safety violations. The company officials so far have said those do not rise to the threshold where mining authorities would shut down the mine. It did not rise to the threshold of imminent risk to the lives of miners.

Nevertheless, there have been serious safety issues involving methane levels and perhaps weaknesses of the roof of the mine as recently as the past year and recent months.

Since this company that is currently in charge took over in November, they say that they have made a lot of safety improvements, however.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally, Ann, tell us what you expect to be happening or seeing over the next few hours there.

ANN SCOTT TYSON: I expect that the mine rescue teams may well reach the end of the mine and determine the fate of the miners. And there will be additional holes drilled. I expect those to be completed and they’ll provide further information on what is there.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Ann Scott Tyson of The Washington Post, thanks very much.

ANN SCOTT TYSON: My pleasure.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I’m joined now live by an expert who oversaw mine safety in the 1990s for the U.S. Department of Labor during the Clinton Administration. Davitt McAteer is currently vice president for government affairs at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia.

Mr. McAteer, welcome to you. Help us understand this rescue operation a bit. What makes it so difficult?

DAVITT McATEER: Well, the problem is that when the rescue teams go in, they must set up fresh air bases that ensure that there aren’t more injuries or accidents to the rescuers themselves. And in order to do that, they start with the process by which they don oxygen masks or oxygen systems and try to take that forward until they can determine that the air is fresh and that they are protected.

They go some number of feet, typically 500 feet, and stop and set that new fresh air base up. Then the second team comes in and relieves the first team. And that team then moves forward in the next level. This is done in a very disciplined way in order to again prevent any second occurrence or any further problems from a safety and health standpoint for the rescuers themselves. But it is a very slow and tedious process.

Secondly, if there’s any breaks in the ventilation systems in the mine itself, they will stop and fix those so that they have behind them, they bring their fresh air in essence brought along with them. And so they’ll take the time to ensure that the ventilation system getting into the mine is repaired and is fixed.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what creates the dangerous gases that are there in the mine shaft?

DAVITT McATEER: The gases that have been most spoken of today are — is carbon monoxide. That can be created in a couple of ways. One is from the explosion itself or from a fire. And so you have to look at the samples that are taken to see what the levels of carbon monoxide are as well as other samples to see if there are any, quote, fire gases.

Those are gases that are created after the fire — after a fire occurs. We’re not seeing any sign of the fire gases, which suggest that we don’t have any active and strong fire. But we do have sufficient carbon monoxide to be of very high levels for three or four times the levels that are acceptable.

What that suggests is that you’ve gotten a — an explosion. And that explosion would create a carbon monoxide base. And then the ventilation system being disrupted as we think it is, as the reports have indicated, that system would then circulate this carbon monoxide inside the mine itself. And so we would have to guard against the carbon monoxide being inhaled by the mine rescue teams.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, as we just heard, this was a fairly experienced crew that went in there. What kind of precautions would they have taken? What kind of training would they have had to do in a situation like this?

DAVITT McATEER: Well, the miners experienced in work would know to take certain basic precautions. There is a self-contained self-rescuer, an oxygen-generating breathing device that each miner has or is on the car that they’re carrying.

And if they were close enough to get to those devices at the time of the explosion and could survive the explosion, then in fact they would be in a position to try and figure out a way to get to a fresh air base.

If they could learn that there was toxic air, they would try to go to a place that had fresh air in it and use some of the materials that were in the mine itself to barricade themselves into an area to try to hold the fresh air into the area until a rescue occurs.

They would have had to have tremendous amount of luck in all of these levels – first would be to survive the explosion; second, to be able to get to these devices; third, to be able to find the materials to barricade themselves in. And that’s why I think that most people are pessimistic about the outcome. But miners have in the past been very resourceful and have done things that have been remarkable so we don’t give up hope.

JEFFREY BROWN: We have, of course, just heard about some of the violations that this company has been hit with over the last year. How unusual is that? How good is the oversight of mining companies?

DAVITT McATEER: Well, we’ve heard that there’s been a number of violations both the previous years and in this year, and both at the state level and at the federal levels. Those numbers of citations have increased, in some cases, increased dramatically. In one instance at the federal level they’ve more than doubled. That is a real problematic sign from a safety standpoint.

And the second factor is that these types — the types of violations that we’re talking about are substantive violations. They are, for example, violations of the roof control. They’re violations of the emergency escape ways. They’re not only the basic violations but they’re substantive violations.

That should have sent a signal to management as well as to the regulatory agency that you need to have revamp of the health and safety system that you’ve got in place because what it is suggesting to you is that the system that you have in place is not working.

And, unfortunately, the fact that you’ve had an explosion also suggests that the system that was in place was inadequate. And any time you have an explosion in the mine, it says that it was grossly inadequate.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Davitt McAteer, Thank you very much.