Mine rescue chambers have been required since 2006, even though
federal authorities could have required them as far back as 1969.
But it's still unclear whether miners in this week's explosion in
West Virginia could have reached the chambers.
Monday's explosion at a West Virginia coal mine is becoming a
possible test case for the benefit of rescue chambers, which federal
legislators mandated all mine operators have installed four years
ago to save lives underground in case disaster strikes.
"Mines in this country really haven't been tested. This is the
first test where chambers had been installed," says Patrick
McGinley, a professor of law at West Virginia University who
enforced mine safety laws in Pennsylvania as a former special
assistant attorney general.
Rescue workers at the Upper Big Branch South Mine in Whitesville
have been trying all week to reach two such chambers with hopes of
saving four missing miners. An explosion Monday afternoon killed 25
miners and hospitalized two others, in what is considered the worst
mining disaster in 25 years.
IN PICTURES: West Virginia mine explosion
The chambers are airtight safe houses that provide four days of
clean air for up to 15 people, as well as a supply of food and
water, communication and toilet facilities. They are located within
1,000 feet of worker areas and are spaced no more than 30 minutes
Rescue crews were within 500 feet of one chamber Thursday but
were ordered back when it was discovered the air was contaminated
with high levels of carbon monoxide, methane, and hydrogen gases. A
second attempt Friday was similarly stalled due to a fire underway
near the chamber.
However, officials from the US Mine Safety and Health
Administration (MSHA) said it was determined the first chamber was
not deployed and a camera was inserted into the mine to find out the
status of the second chamber.
'A sliver of hope'
"We've all got one opportunity, a sliver of hope, a miracle if
you will, if the other chamber has been deployed, then we have
chance," Kevin Stricklin, a MSHA official, said Friday.
Rescue chambers were not required in mines until the 2006 Mine
Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (MINER), a federal
mandate that firmed up safety measures in mines as well as emergency
response measures such as wireless tracking systems, clearly marked
escape routes, and self-rescuing breathing devices.
But safety advocates in the mining industry complain that MSHA
was given full authority to require mine operators to install rescue
chambers as far back as 1969 when Congress passed the Federal Coal
Mine Health and Safety Act, considered a landmark piece of
legislation in how comprehensive it was in dealing with safety and
health issues. …