US mines face shortage of emergency air packs

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - One of just two major makers of
emergency air packs for U.S. coal mines has stopped selling the
devices because they often don't automatically start and the
industry fears it will lead to a shortage, officials said
Underground mines must increase stockpiles as their operations
grow. Government rules require the nation's 50,000 underground
miners to wear an emergency air pack on their belt and operators to
cache extra air ones in work areas, on vehicles used to bring
miners underground and along escapeways.
With one company not planning to sell them for the foreseeable
future, the industry worries there will be a shortage, said
National Mining Association lobbyist Bruce Watzman.
The new danger comes as the industry deals with its worst loss
of life in 40 years - the deaths of 29 miners in an explosion at a
West Virginia underground mine last month.
Monroeville, Pa.-based CSE Corp. controls about half the U.S.
market. Small oxygen cylinders used to start its air packs
automatically have long been known to fail. The devices, known as
self-contained self-rescuers, are designed to generate enough
oxygen from chemicals for a miner to breathe for about an hour in
toxic conditions due to fire or explosion.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration won't allow
CSE to resume shipments until the problem is fixed, spokeswoman Amy
Louviere said.
"If they try to go back into production before they solve the
problem, we will issue a formal letter of stop sale," Louviere
MSHA will soon give options to mine operators about how to
comply with regulations without CSE's devices, she said.
CSE said its air packs remain safe and haven't been pulled from
mines because workers are trained to start the device manually.
However, MSHA is advising miners to try a spare before attempting a
manual start.
Starting it manually is dangerous because miners have to breathe
in carbon monoxide, smoke and other toxins to blow air into the
packs, said Randy Harris, engineering consultant to the West
Virginia's mine safety director.
The problem has been noted before in studies by the National
Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which found a 16
percent failure rate in its most recent report. Harris found a much
higher rate in tests he conducted for West Virginia and Kentucky
Of the 50 that West Virginia and Kentucky jointly tested,
two-thirds of them failed, which Harris called "a highly
unacceptable rate."
West Virginia probably will have to cite mines that can't get
enough air packs, Harris said.
That's another frustration for the coal industry. Although coal
generates half the nation's electricity, it's not a big enough
industry to attract large manufacturers. CSE, for instance, is a
family-run business and makes its air packs essentially by hand.
"Once again we're in a situation where we're an industry that
unfortunately has too few technology providers because of the size
of the marketplace," said Watzman.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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