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Underground coal mines will have to beef up their mine-rescue teams, making sure that their members live closer to the work site and have more training, under a rule finalized Friday by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
MSHA was required to improve overall mine rescue capability, mine emergency response times and rescue-team efficiency by the Miner Act of 2006, passed by Congress after rescue system weaknesses were made fatally clear by a Jan. 2, 2006, explosion at the Sago mine in Upshur County, W.Va.
The investigation determined one miner was killed outright in an early morning explosion. A dozen others survived and erected barricades deeper in the mine to protect them from deadly gases until help arrived, but rescuers would not come for 41 hours. By then, all but one of the barricaded miners died of asphyxiation.
Investigators also learned the first mine-rescue teams did not arrive on site until 5 1/2 hours after the explosion.
Congress ordered MSHA to rectify the problems by the end of 2007. Five weeks late, the rule published Friday seeks to accomplish the goal by requiring mines to have two certified mine-rescue teams, each of whose members must have 96 hours of annual training, up from the 40 previously required.
Some training must be done in simulated smoke to resemble an actual disaster, and at mines where rescuers might be called to action. Five-member rescue teams also must display their skills in two mine-rescue contests a year.
The rule also requires miners to be able to reach a stricken mine within an hour from a prearranged meeting point. At a public hearing in Salt Lake City in late October, Utah Mining Association President David Litvin called this provision "tremendously burdensome and in some cases unfeasible" in the West, where long distances separate mines outside scattered rural communities.
He and Kevin Tuttle of the Rocky Mountain Coal Mine Rescue Association also asked MSHA for optional learning exercises to a mine-rescue contest. But both the distance and rescue-contest measures were part of the final rule.
Mike Dalpiaz, a Price-based vice president on the United Mine Workers of America's international executive board, said the changes are "a very good start" to making mines safer but that much more needs to be done to give MSHA the resources, technical abilities and political will to fulfill its mission.
"A lot of the smaller mines are complaining that it's a burden to have two teams, but that should be the last of their worries," he said. "Let's be safe and hope the good Lord you never have to use them."
In a related matter, MSHA officials are distributing stickers, magnets and business cards with a toll-free number - 800-746-1553 - that people can call confidentially to report hazardous or dangerous conditions at mines.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration published a final rule Friday designed to improve the performance of mine rescue teams responding to a potential disaster. Its main points:
* Each mine must have two certified, five-member mine rescue teams
* Mines must have a person with emergency response knowledge on-site in each shift
* Rescue team members must be able to reach their mines within an hour of a call for assistance
* Members must train in their own mine and take part in two local mine-rescue contests annually
* Training requirement increased from 40 to 96 hours annually, including work in smoky environment