CHARLESTON, W.Va. Two years after an explosion tore apart the Sago Mine and killed 12 men, prompting Congress to pass legislation strengthening mine safety standards, many of those standards have yet to be implemented.
Congress overhauled mine safety rules after the January 2006 blast at the Upshur County mine. There were two other high-profile fatal mine accidents that year, and August collapses in Utah killed nine miners.
But the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has yet to implement some of the standards established by the laws, and the United Mine Workers union, which represents some of the 42,000 miners who work in the nation's 670 underground coal mines, blames the agency and mine owners for the delays.
"MSHA, quite frankly, for some time now, since about 2001, has not been the agency that it was mandated to be by Congress to protect the coal miners in this country," union president Cecil Roberts said. "MSHA, I think, has gone backwards."
The miners' union sharply criticized the agency for failing to conduct quarterly inspections of every underground mine, as it is required to do.
Furthermore, the MSHA hasn't established standards mandating stronger methods of sealing abandoned sections of underground mines, as it the new legislation requires it to do. It also hasn't established rules requiring mine rescue teams to get better equipment and training, or requiring mines to be equipped with wireless underground communications, airtight refuge chambers for trapped miners, or fire-resistant conveyor belts.
"What remains to be done is a sustained effort," said James Dean, who ran West Virginia's Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training for six months following the Sago accident and now heads a state task force that evaluates mine safety equipment.
MSHA director Richard Stickler said his agency has made progress in implementing the new standards, despite facing a shortage of trained mine inspectors and other difficulties.
"Nothing gets done as fast as I would like," Stickler said. "I think progress is being made."
He said stiffer penalties are now levied for certain violations and there has been a 42 percent increase in the number of citations issued from 2003 to 2007, and the number of mines ordered to temporarily shut down for violating safety standards has more than doubled during that time period.
"Unfortunately, a lot of what we've been doing is sort of focusing on yesterday's fires," Stickler said. "That takes away a lot of resources to do that. Where we want to get is looking ahead."
For example, he said, the collapse of the Crandall Canyon in Utah this year prompted the MSHA to re-examine roof control plans at all areas prone to the kind of ground shift that is believed to have caused the collapse and at all mines engaged in so-called retreat mining, where pillars of coal left to support the roof are shaved down and sometimes removed altogether.
Stickler said he hopes to propose rules for refuge chambers and alternatives such as hardened rooms by June. Rules addressing fire-resistant belts and a recommendation that mines be allowed to ventilate working faces with air sucked through belt tunnels also are due by June.