How US Laws Prevent Mine Rescue Miracles


Image: Zhent_/Flickr

As of last week, the words “Chilean miracle” have more to do with miners than with Milton Friedman. The odds of anyone surviving 2,000 feet under the earth, trapped in a sweltering copper mine for 69 days, are low. But the celebrated “Los 33” Chilean miners managed to do just that. Thanks to solid leadership, support, and, depending on how you see things, a miracle, the miners are alive today.

The record-breaking Chilean rescue has rightfully turned the world’s attention to miner safety. Mining is one of the most dangerous jobs in America, and probably the world.

With current safety standards, however, coal miners trapped in the US would face a situation more like the recent Chinese tragedy, in which 37 coal miners died, than the “Los 33” Chilean miracle.

Coal Coffins

A significant amount of US coal reserves lie in so-called low coal mines, in which the coal seams being mined are less than 48 inches high. The national rescue shelter volume specification for that kind of mine is 30 cubic feet, or roughly 6 feet long, 2.5 feet wide and 2 feet tall. In other words, a trapped miner can’t sit up in a government-approved rescue space, let alone perform first aid or maintain mental stability. US shelters are set up to let trapped miners survive for four days, with four days’ worth of water and food for each miner. Mines need to provide oxygen tanks and carbon monoxide scrubbers to keep miners alive for four days.

The space that held “Los 33” is described as being about the size of a living room, with enough space for miners to sit, stand and move around in. Miners had enough space to perform first aid and segregate their eating and waste-disposal areas, even without the extra space gained when they were able to access a portion of a tunnel that had not collapsed. Even with this additional space, they showed signs of severe mental stress.

But, put bluntly, had this accident happened in a US low coal mine operating under legal specifications, the miners would have been trapped in a coffin-like space and very likely died.

The Chilean incident, though it happened in a copper mine under specific conditions, still underlines that, with the right resources, trapped miners can survive for an impressive amount of time. But US regulations simply don’t allow for this. Here, if trapped coal miners are lucky enough to make it into a rescue chamber, they wouldn’t have space to treat injuries or make repairs to the chamber. They wouldn’t even be able to sit up.

Lobbying Makes Politicians Lie Down

In 2006, after the West Virginia Sago mine explosion trapped 13 miners for two days, with only one survivor, Congress enacted the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act. The MINER Act, the first significant mine safety legislation since 1977, requires coal mine operators create a specific emergency response plan for each their underground coal mines.

As part of an effort to update regulations that protect underground miners, the MINER Act also required that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to submit a report to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who gracefully stated that American workers need to mind their personal hygiene. Chao’s job was to propose regulations after reading the report.

Perhaps expressing her distaste for grimy coal miners—and her comfort with squeaky-clean industry lobbyists–Chao decided the NIOSH report’s 85-cubic-foot per miner shelter recommendation was too big. One of her justifications was that the recommended size just didn’t fit very well in a low coal mine. Even though MSHA’s review of scientific research led it to conclude that activities like attending to sanitation and caring for injured miners are necessary for miner survival, Chao revised the size downward to its current coffin-like dimensions to the point where the performance of these activities would be impossible.

The minimum volume standard isn’t the only fatal flaw in Chao’s regulations. In order to use the complex rescue shelters effectively, miners need to receive hands-on training, according to the NIOSH report. The report cited research that 7 out of 10 miners who received hands-on training were proficient in the tasks for which they had been trained, compared to only 1 out of 10 miners without training.

But Chao did not include an effective hands-on training requirement in her final regulations. The net result? Miners who are ill-trained to effectively use shelters that are too small to ensure their survival.

When accidents happen in low coal mines in the US, don’t get your hopes up for another miracle.

Note: The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) is currently challenging the shelter training and minimum volume regulations in the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.