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Senate Panel Seeks Answers on Mine Safety

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Today the Senate began its look at one of the country's worst mining disasters in decades, and senators had some tough questions for federal safety officials. Members of a labor subcommittee wanted to know why the mine in Sago, West Virginia was not shut down for past violations. They also wanted to know whether communications technology could have saved lives.

NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT: January has been a devastating month in the coal fields of West Virginia. Since the beginning of the year, 14 miners have died there. The total number of mine deaths throughout the country for all of 2005 was 22, one of the lowest in many years. At a hearing today, Senator Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat, said the government needs to do a lot more to protect the workers who help provide the country with more than half of its electricity.

ROBERT BYRD: 14 men in the span of three weeks. These deaths, I believe, were entirely preventable. And we owe the families of these deceased and brave men a hard look at what happened and why.

LANGFITT: The senators focused on the explosion at the Sago Mine, where a dozen men died. The Nation's Mine Safety Agency, which everyone calls MSHA, had issued more than 200 safety violations to the mine owner. Senator Byrd had this question for David Dye, MSHA's acting director.

BYRD: Shouldn't that mine have been closed, with all those citations? Why?

DAVID G: The Mine Act has ability to close areas of the mine that are affected by violations, and we did that 18 times, until those things - each of those violations were abated. But the Mine Act does not contain a provision that allows a preemptive closure of a mine for accumulated bad acts, permanent closure.

LANGFITT: The blast at Sago destroyed the mine's communication system. It took a rescue crew more than 30 hours to find the miners, but by then it was too late. Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, asked Dye why the mine didn't use a text messaging system that had saved other miners elsewhere.

TOM HARKIN: In November of 1998, there was a mine fire at the Willow Creek Mine in Helper, Utah. Personal emergency devices instantly and wirelessly received an emergency message broadcast to each miner on a screen. 45 miners used that to escape the fire. Seven years later only 17 mines in the U.S. utilize this technology. Why?

DYE: Well, I talked to my tech support folks about that, and there are, like you said, some mines that use it. Some of them, candidly, are enthusiastic about it. Some of them have had a number of problems, including reliability issues.

LANGFITT: But Davitt McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration, held up one of the text messaging machines, an orange box with a small screen. He said it works well and should be standard issue.

DAVITT MCATEER: This is the personal emergency device that Senator Harkin mentioned. It can be put into all the mines in this country.

LANGFITT: McAteer said mine officials can use the messaging system to tell miners underground about escape routes and where to go, and he held up a homing device about the size of a cell phone.

MCATEER: This is a tracker system that can be carried by an individual miner, and he can be located. These devices have been approved by the Mine Safety and Health Administration. I must disagree with Acting Assistant Secretary Dye. These devices have proved to be reliable.

LANGFITT: But they cost money, and that could be a reason why some mines don't use them. McAteer said a text messaging system would have cost about $100,000 at the Sago Mine, or about $750 per miner.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.