The federal mine-safety agency opened a new Kentucky center Friday aimed at improving its capacity to handle rescues, with a response truck, communication systems and portable, high-tech equipment to test for poisonous and explosive gases.
The center, in Madisonville, is the fourth in the nation but the first in the state, and in the coalfield that includes Western Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana.
The station will allow faster and safer rescue operations throughout the Midwest if needed, said Joe Main, head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
"Hopefully, we'll never have to use it" in a real emergency, Main said.
Main was in Kentucky this week to speak at a national mine-safety rescue competition and open the emergency operations center.
Main said in an interview that he has a number of other plans and hopes for improving mine rescue operations, including more rescue stations across the country and development of a helmet camera for rescuers so people outside the mine could see what's going on underground.
His wish list also includes development of better wireless underground communications; an updated seismic sensor to help locate trapped miners; improved methods for miners to take refuge in a disaster; robots to go into mines when conditions are too dangerous for human rescuers; and a system to let miners wearing breathing machines — called self-rescuers — talk without removing the mouthpiece and exposing themselves to carbon monoxide.
It's an ambitious list at a time when financial struggles in the U.S. coal industry mean less ability or incentive for coal companies or suppliers to develop technology that isn't mandated.
So, Main said, he's been in talks with people in China in hopes that providing a bigger market would create an incentive to invest in developing new technology.
Eastern Kentucky is among the places that has seen a sharp drop in coal production and jobs.
As a result, MSHA has cut staff in the region because there are fewer active mines.
Some safety advocates understood the agency would close the Pikeville district office, raising a concern over the potential that it would take the agency longer to respond to emergencies in some places.
However, Main said MSHA will not close the office. It will become a field office rather than a district office, but there will be staffers in Pikeville, he said.
"We're gonna maintain a sound staff in Eastern Kentucky," he said.
Main, who started his career as a coal miner in Pennsylvania and worked many years for the United Mine Workers of America union, was confirmed to head MSHA in late 2009.
A few months later, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, W.V., killed 29 miners.
In the wake of the disaster, MSHA started doing unannounced "impact inspections" to bring increased scrutiny to mines with a poor compliance record or other concerns.
The inspections were among a number of new health and safety rules and programs MSHA has put in place on Main's watch.
Others include a mandate for companies to do better examinations to spot hazards; tougher sanctions for mines with a history of violations; and a requirement for detectors to prevent miners from being crushed by continuous mining machines.
The agency recently proposed requiring those detectors on equipment used to move coal underground.
Main said the rules, enforcement and the work of coal companies to improve safety is paying off.
There were 16 deaths at U.S coal mines last year, the lowest on record.
Reduced production and employment played a role in that. But MSHA data show the fatality rate — which is based on hours worked, so it accounts for the downturn — was the second-lowest on record for coal, and the injury rate matched the lowest.
Another major rule change dealt with protecting miners from breathable coal dust, which can cause black lung, an incurable disease that chokes off breathing.
Black lung has been the underlying or contributing cause of 76,000 deaths since 1968, even though legislation passed more than four decades ago was meant to eradicate the disease.
The incidence of black lung declined sharply after the law went into effect, but then began going back up more than a decade ago, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The increase was especially notable in Eastern Kentucky, where 9 percent of the miners screened in one NIOSH program from 2005 through 2009 had the disease, far more than a few years earlier.
Rules MSHA began phasing in last year lowered the legal level of miners' dust exposure; required dust personal monitors for miners; and changed how companies have to monitor for dust to get a more realistic picture of the concentration in the mine.
"Nobody deserves to go to work as a coal miner in the country and wind up living off an oxygen bottle," Main said.
Safety advocates raised a concern with the MSHA chief last month about a possible loophole in the law.
An official with MSHA told coal operators at a meeting that if a miner works unscheduled overtime, the company will not have to provide a personal monitoring device past the end of the regular shift, according to Sam B. Petsonk, an attorney with Mountain State Justice in West Virginia.
The concern is that companies could get around the dust rules by having miners work unscheduled overtime and not measure or report their exposure to dust in that time.
"That's a crack that's a mile wide," said Tony Oppegard, a Lexington attorney who represents miners in safety cases and formerly worked at MSHA.
Petsonk, Oppegard and Steve Sanders, director of the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center, asked Main to instruct that companies provide designated miners with dust monitors during an entire shift, even if part of it is not scheduled.
Use of the monitors is set to start next spring.
Main told the Herald-Leader the law requires coal companies to define a miners' shift and program the personal dust monitor to gather data through the shift.
If MSHA sees companies attempting to manipulate the implementation of the rule, Main said, "we're gonna deal with it."
The coal industry has sued over the rules, arguing that MSHA overstepped its authority, relied on flawed data, and required use of an inferior sampling method.
The concern is that the sampling rules and technology are incompatible, meaning companies will be wrongly cited for non-compliance, said Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association.
MSHA projected that the industry's cost to meet the standards would be less than the benefits from a reduction in black-lung cases.
"We think we've developed a sound rule," Main told the Herald-Leader.
Health and safety advocates would like MSHA to also adopt a tougher limit on exposure to silica dust, which comes from drilling or blasting in rock.
"It's well recognized in the scientific community that exposure to respirable silica is a key cause of lung disease in mine workers," said Celeste Monforton, of George Washington University.
Main said MSHA plans to issue a proposed rule on silica exposure in line with a standard being developed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Safety advocates have applauded Main's tenure. However, the mining industry has complained that enforcement has been too heavy-handed.
"It's a stubborn resistance to examining other, better ways to incentivize safety performance," said Popovich. "Regulation and citations is the only safety paradigm MSHA understands."
Main said MSHA has worked hard to help companies and miners understand how to comply with rules, but he won't apologize for the rules or the enforcement.
"I don't care what the economy is, miners deserve a safe workplace," he said. "They need to have a government that really has their back."