MSHA: Poor Emergency Management In Alabama Coal Mine Explosion

Most of the fatalities in the Sept. 23, 2001, double explosion at Jim Walter Resources Inc. No. 5 mine in Tuscaloosa, Ala. resulted from poor emergency management, causing the Mine Safety and Health Administration's (MSHA) to take a little-used shortcut to rulemaking.

MSHA, which released the investigation report Wednesday, utlilizing a rarely used provision of federal mine safety law, announced new federal requirements covering emergency evacuations in all underground coal mines.

"Most of the victims in this accident were bravely responding to an emergency and were in harm's way because of poor emergency management. The lesson of their sacrifice is that we can prevent such tragic situations in the future," Assistant Secretary of Labor Dave D. Lauriski said in a news conference in Tuscaloosa. "We are acting to strengthen emergency preparedness immediately, throughout the underground coal mining industry."

MSHA investigators cited Jim Walter Resources for eight violations contributing to the accident. By law, each violation entails a civil penalty of up to $55,000 per violation. Penalties will be determined later under criteria specified by law. MSHA is posting the investigation report on the Jim Walter No. 5 mine accident on its Web site at www.msha.gov.

MSHA investigators found that a roof collapse at an underground battery charging station set the stage for the first of two explosions by interfering with ventilation. Within minutes, an electric arc from a battery ignited methane gas. The first explosion injured four miners, one seriously perhaps fatally and further damaged ventilation controls. Most miners underground learned of the emergency, but not that an explosion had occurred. Many traveled toward the affected section to help. A second, more massive explosion, fueled by both methane and coal dust, probably was ignited by an underground traffic light. The second explosion caused at least 12 of the fatalities.

The new emergency temporary standard on underground coal mine evacuations appeared in the Federal Register yesterday and took effect immediately. The rule requires that a designated responsible person take charge in any mine emergency and evacuate the mine if there is imminent danger to the miners. Only properly trained and equipped persons essential to respond to the emergency may remain underground.

To make the emergency temporary standard permanent, the agency has nine months to obtain public comments and issue a final rule. Lauriski said that MSHA will hold four public hearings in February to receive comments on the emergency temporary standard.

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