W.Va. Approves First Wireless Mine Communications, Tracking Gear

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - The first wireless system designed to help rescuers track and communicate with trapped coal miners was approved Thursday for use in the state's approximately 177 underground coal mines.

The approval of Ontario, Canada-based Varis Mine Technology Ltd.'s gear is a milestone of sorts for U.S. coal mining.

The industry has raced to develop communications and tracking gear capable of surviving explosions and fires since the deaths of 12 trapped miners at the Sago Mine in Upshur County in January 2006. Balky radios and a lack of knowledge of the miners' location hampered rescuers at Sago.

The state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training also gave conditional approval to three other tracking and communications systems and two that offer only tracking.

While the approvals apply only in West Virginia, the state's actions are being watched closely across the country. Sweeping federal mine safety legislation passed a year ago requires wireless communications and tracking in more than 600 underground coal mines across the country by 2009.

West Virginia is considered a potential national model for the national rules. But some fear the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration will come up with different requirements and make pricey equipment purchased for West Virginia obsolete.

Miners' Health, Safety and Training Director Ron Wooten said Gov. Joe Manchin, state officials and the state's delegation in Congress are trying to resolve the situation with MSHA before West Virginia mines begin purchasing systems that manufacturers estimate will cost $100,000 or more per mine.

"We don't want to burden this industry," Wooten said. "We also want to make sure our miners are protected as quickly as possible."

Chris Hamilton, senior vice president for the West Virginia Coal Association, said avoiding conflict with MSHA is essential. "Will MSHA ultimately approve or accept what West Virginia is requiring mine operators to purchase and install?" Hamilton said. "We'll do the best we can ... We will have a more reliable communication system in underground mines."

West Virginia mines must submit plans for wireless communications and tracking by July 31. Modification and approval of those plans is expected to take until October and state officials hope to have equipment installed in every West Virginia mine by the end of 2008.

For now, Varis is the only choice.

Lexington, Ky.-based Matrix Design Group, Ona-based Marco North America Inc., Liberty Lake, Wash.-based Venture Design Group, Beckley-based Hughes Supply Co. and Elkins-based Hannah Engineering all received conditional approval.

But those systems still must be deemed safe by MSHA. While the agency does not judge whether equipment works, it does determine whether electronic equipment poses a danger of setting off methane
gas explosions.

David Chirdon, who heads the electrical safety division at MSHA's approval and certification center, said during a speech to the state-sponsored Coal Forum in Charleston that the agency is processing 33 applications for communications and tracking equipment.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

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