WASHINGTON – House lawmakers pressed mining industry and government officials on Wednesday to explain why miners are going without life-saving technology following a string of accidents that have killed 24 U.S. miners so far this year.
Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., asked officials with the agency that oversees mine safety why victims of the Jan. 2 accident at West Virginia's Sago mine were unable to communicate with rescuers above ground.
"We sit right down there in Houston and we talk with astronauts on the moon," said Norwood, who chaired the hearing before an Education and the Workforce subcommittee. "Now why in the dickens can't we talk to these men underground?"
Twelve miners were killed in the Sago accident and one survivor is recovering from carbon monoxide poisoning. It took rescuers more than 40 hours to pull the victims out, and the miners and rescuers were unable to communicate with each other.
Bruce Watzman, the top safety expert at the National Mining Association, testified that reliable two-way technology that can be used in coal mines isn't on the market. "It doesn't have to be 100 percent, but we also don't want to provide a false sense of security," Watzman said when asked if the industry was holding out for something perfect.
Dennis O'Dell, the top safety expert at the United Mine Workers, said the Mine Safety and Health Administration should require the use of airtight rescue chambers in all coal mines. They are used in other mines and are credited with saving the lives of 72 Canadian potash miners last month.
O'Dell said had there been such a chamber at the Sago mine, "those miners would have been alive today."
The Sago miners barricaded themselves behind a makeshift protective curtain rather than trying to get out of the mine on their own.
The mine agency may have failed to make miners understand the importance of doing everything possible to evacuate during disasters, said Robert Friend, acting deputy assistant secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health.
"You don't stay. Don't barricade. You get out of the mine," Friend said.
Friend also acknowledged the mine agency has an outdated penalty system. The agency recently announced plans to revamp it. Fines are widely considered to be too low, and the government also has had trouble getting about 20 percent of its fines paid.
Also discussed was a tracking system that helps rescuers locate miners. It is used abroad but not in the United States.
O'Dell said the U.S. government developed a device to track trapped miners in the 1970s but never managed to put it in mines. Friend said he wasn't aware of the effort.
The hearing broke down along partisan lines at the end when Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., asked if Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., could ask a question. Holt is not on the subcommittee, and Norwood said no as the hearing was over.
Miller then asked if lawmakers on the panel could ask a second round of questions, to which Norwood again said no but promised more hearings in the future.
The two exchanged harsh words, and miners in the audience applauded loudly when Miller said, "We have these people here to ask questions about today, about what's going on, and miners and their families want to know what's going on."