Page last updated at 21:37 GMT, Tuesday, 6 April 2010 22:37 UK

US mine safety under the spotlight

By Vanessa Buschschluter
BBC News, Washington DC

Church sign
Residents are hoping some of the miners may still be rescued

A deadly explosion at a coal mine in West Virginia which has left 25 miners dead has drawn attention to the implementation of mine safety regulations in the United States.

The accident comes just months after the US government reported mining deaths had fallen to an all-time low.

Fatalities in the coal mining industry had been declining since 2006, dropping steadily from 47 deaths to only 18 in 2009.

Monday's underground explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia has taken this year's total to 27.

Fewer deaths

The US Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration says the implementation of two congressional acts was key in the decrease of fatal accidents.

Kevin Stricklin
Something went very wrong here
Kevin Stricklin
Mine Safety and Health Administration

Under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, coal mines such as the one where Monday's accident took place are inspected at least four times year.

The Act also stipulates that there be dedicated rescue teams present at all underground mines.

In the wake of a deadly 2006 methane gas explosion at a coal mine in Sago, West Virginia, Congress in addition passed the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Act.

It demanded underground coal mines have a specific emergency response plan in place and increased penalties for companies not complying with the new regulations.

The operator behind the Sago mine had been widely criticised after it became known the company had been cited for more than 200 safety violations during the 12 months prior to the accident.

Emergency preparedness

The state of West Virginia moreover passed its own legislation in 2006 creating a new mine emergency response system requiring coal mining companies to provide miners with additional emergency air supplies, communications equipment and tracking devices.

After Monday's accident at the Upper Big Branch mine, its operator, Performance Coal Company, has come under scrutiny.

According to records held by the government's Mine Safety and Health Administration, Performance Coal Company's parent company, Massey Energy, has been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for infringing safety regulations.

The violations cited included problems with the mine's ventilation plan and the equipment used at the site, as well as allowing combustible coal dust to pile up, and having improper fire-fighting equipment.

Mine deaths

Other Mine Safety and Health Administration records show that three workers have died at the mine over the past 12 years.

In a statement released on Monday, Massey Energy Chairman and CEO Don Blankenship said that the company's top priority was the safety of their miners and the well-being of their families.

You're dealing with Mother Nature, there's a lot of things can happen that you don't expect
Joseph Sbaffoni
Pennsylvania Bureau of Mine Safety

"We are working diligently on rescue efforts and continue to partner with all of the appropriate agencies," the statement said.

Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, administrator for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration Kevin Stricklin said despite the increased safety regulations "something went very wrong here for us to have the magnitude of this explosion".

The Director of the Bureau of Mine Safety in neighbouring Pennsylvania, Joseph Sbaffoni, says safety regulations in the US are very strict and are being monitored closely by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

"But," he says, "you're dealing with Mother Nature, things change. There's a lot of things can happen that you don't expect."

Mr Sbaffoni says the conditions in underground coal mines are particularly dangerous. Roofs can cave in, water can flood the mine, or methane gas can be liberated, triggering explosions.

'No time to flee'

He says that after a string of disasters in 2006, added security measures were put in place to increase the chances of trapped miners of surviving.

These include life lines - guide ropes which the miners can follow even in thick smoke or darkness - enhanced communication devices, and refuge chambers with oxygen and food supplies.

But judging by the reports coming out of West Virginia, Mr Sbaffoni says, the miners at the Montcoal mine did not have the time to use any of these new safety measures.

"Whatever occurred, it occurred quickly. It sounds like the size of this explosion may have cut a lot of these enhancements short," Mr Sbaffoni said.

The problem, he says, is that safety improvements tend to address only the latest disaster. The recommendations after the Sago accident, for example, dealt mainly with how to ensure miners could survive a carbon monoxide build-up.

Mr Sbaffoni says that while putting mechanisms in place to heighten the chances of miners' survival after an accident is good practice, the key is to prevent accidents from happening in the first place.

And that is down to good engineering when the mine is first built, he says.

"You've got to make sure you do things like you're supposed to."

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