Maker of mine refuge chambers set to operate in Lancaster

LANCASTER — A company that makes mine refuge chambers — metal compartments with enough air, food and water to help trapped miners — will soon operate out of Garrard County.

Mine Shields LLC announced Wednesday that it will use a vacant building in Lancaster to make chambers that will hold eight, 12 or 16 miners at a time.

Wednesday's ceremony was scheduled before this week's mine disaster in West Virginia that killed 25 miners. But the incident put new attention on refuge chambers.

"The tragedy that we're going through this week in West Virginia shows us that we must continually work to do even better," Gov. Steve Beshear said during the ceremony.

The chambers are small, airtight metal cells, containing food, water, toilet facilities and enough air to sustain a few miners for up to four days. After an underground accident, miners wait inside the shelters, protected from deadly carbon monoxide or other threats, until rescuers reach them.

The shelters are required under federal safety legislation passed after explosions at the Kentucky Darby Mine in Harlan County and West Virginia's Sago Mine killed a total of 17 coal miners in 2006.

Mine Shields will create at least 35 new full-time jobs that will pay $16 an hour. Connie Hendren, chief executive officer for the company, said hiring will begin in June. A job fair will be held in Lancaster, but the date has not been scheduled.

Hendren said the company is working to receive certification for its chambers from the Mine Safety and Health Administration. That certification, which will take six months or longer to get, might allow the company to add 130 more jobs as it seeks to put multiple chambers in the country's 13,000 mines.

The company already has some employees in Richmond and Shelbyville that weld the metal boxes. The boxes will then be brought to Lancaster, where they will be powdercoated and finished with the installation of electronics, air cylinders, food and water, and then shipped from Lancaster to mines in the United States or overseas.

Mine Shields hopes to sell chambers to China and to all ore mines in South Africa.

The company will occupy a 60,000-square-foot building that was vacated last year by the Christian Appalachian Project, a non-profit human-services agency that was once headquartered in Lancaster. CAP sold its building to the Lancaster-Garrard County Industrial Authority for $467,500, and the authority will in turn lease the building to Mine Shields.

Mine Shields will receive $968,000 in state tax incentives over 15 years. The startup in Lancaster represents a $3 million investment for the company.

Hendren said he discussed with his wife whether to postpone the announcement after the West Virginia disaster. But Hendren decided to proceed and, before making his remarks Wednesday, he had a friend say a prayer for the families of the miners.

"We didn't feel in any way it was in poor taste to go on and do this," Hendren said.

As is the case elsewhere in Kentucky, Garrard County needs jobs. The average annual unemployment rate for the county was 12 percent in 2009, up from 6.7 percent in 2008, according to state labor statistics.

Garrard County Judge-Executive John Wilson said the last significant economic-development announcement he could remember in Garrard County came in 1987, when he was in the third grade.

Nathan Mick, economic development director for Garrard County, said landing Mine Shields is "a triple win" because it reuses a vacant building, brings needed jobs, and involves the manufacture of a product with the potential to save lives.

"That's a pretty good combination, folks," Mick said.

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