Eastern Ky. mines behind on 2006 safety mandates

Four years after coal mining disasters at Sago, W.Va., and Kentucky Darby mine in Harlan County sparked a range of federal safety mandates, most Eastern Kentucky mines have not implemented all the required safety measures.

The federal Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, passed in 2006, requires that mines install airtight refuge chambers for miners who survive accidents, and provide communications systems to track miners' locations, among other measures. The law ordered mine operators to submit emergency plans by June 2009, but it set no deadline for installation.

Kentucky coal operators are re-evaluating their operations after an explosion killed 25 miners and trapped others Monday at the Upper Big Branch mine owned by Massey Energy in Raleigh County, W.Va.

"They are double-checking ventilation," said Kentucky Coal Association president Bill Bissett. "They are double-checking methane detectors and seals. Even more than they would normally, given what's occurred in West Virginia.

"We want to learn from this incident. But I can assure you that the miners in Kentucky are following this situation very closely."

According to a review of compliance in March by the Mine Safety and Health Administration:

■ Ten of 127 mines in MSHA's districts that cover Central and Eastern Kentucky have fully implemented communications and tracking systems as required by their emergency plans.

■ Twenty-four have started installing the systems in those districts.

■ No mines in Western Kentucky that are required to have communications and tracking systems have implemented them.

About 3 percent of Eastern Kentucky mines have completely implemented the required systems, compared to 17 percent in West Virginia and 13 percent in the district that covers Central Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

West Virginia law requires the safety systems, while Kentucky relies on federal mandates, said Johnny Greene, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing.

Although activists and politicians are lobbying for quick installation, regulators say technology has not kept up with the law.

"I think the technological advances that were written into the MINER Act were really some large leaps ... that were harder to accomplish than even MSHA anticipated," Greene said, referring to the federal law passed in 2006.

Legislation passed in West Virginia around the same time included state mandates for communications and tracking systems, but Kentucky's didn't. Kentucky mine safety laws passed in 2006 focused on mine seals and gas detectors.

Underground refuge chambers have been implemented at many Kentucky mines, Bissett said. Refuge chambers famously saved 72 Canadian potash miners who survived three days underground after a fire in 2006.

In addition, numbers presented during the past couple of months by MSHA indicate technology is starting to catch up to mandates.

As of April 1, "We have observed 74 tests or demonstrations of 34 different communications and/or tracking systems at various mine sites," MSHA said on its Web site.

Bissett cautioned against quick reactionary measures.

"We need to not rush to judgment here," he said. "We need to let the state of West Virginia and MSHA determine the cause or causes of the explosion."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader