Recent disasters have revealed shortcomings with the mining industry's ability to respond to disasters, the head of the nation's top mining regulator said Tuesday.
Mine operators and regulators must improve, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration director Joe Main said during a daylong conference with industry officials. For instance, just 32 of 418 U.S. coal mines have complied with the agency's advice for preparing for disasters.
"This is something I firmly believe we've got to fix," Main said.
Main told the conference that mine operators need to do more themselves to be prepared -- and act -- before MSHA and state regulators arrive at a disaster such as the explosion that killed 29 and injured two at Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia on April 5. It was the nation's worst coal mining disaster in 40 years.
"There's been an artificial reliance on MSHA. The expectation was that we're going to be there Johnny on the spot. That has never been the case," Main said.
Among other things, MSHA wants operators to mark key underground locations on the surface. That makes it easier for rescuers to know where to drill holes to search for miners or survey the atmosphere in a mine such as West Virginia's Upper Big Branch.
Main and other MSHA officials suggested that mine operators sign contracts with companies to drill holes to check air quality underground as a precaution. They also suggested better training for mine rescue teams and contracts with vendors and other mining companies for services such as supplying nitrogen to make a mine environment safe in case of fire.
The National Mining Association estimates the coal industry has spent more than $1 billion on safety upgrades since a series of disasters and a new law in 2006. But NMA lobbyist Bruce Watzman said the industry will spend what it takes to make more improvements.
"It's important to have discussions like this to see if there are gaps and how we'll fill those gaps," Watzman said. "The cost component's never been a factor."
MSHA, too, is planning changes. The agency is upgrading its fleet of vehicle with mobile command centers and trying to add new communications equipment. Even in 2010, MSHA was hampered by spotty telephone and radio service at Upper Big Branch, which sits in a remote southern West Virginia valley.
The agency also is putting together a new web site to allow mine operators to quickly find rescue teams, equipment vendors and the like -- and get directions to any mine in the country.