GAO: MSHA's Emergency Response Plans Put Miners At Risk

In a report examining MSHA’s process of approving emergency response plans for underground coal mines, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) questioned the plans’ effectiveness in protecting miners in the event of an accident, citing plan inconsistencies and delays in issuing guidances to mine operators.

According to the report, MSHA revised its guidance several times, causing delays in the emergency response plan adoption process. GAO found the agency did not issue guidance on one key requirement – providing a refuge of air to miners trapped underground – until 6 months after the initial plans were due.

While mines across the nation adopted emergency response plans in 2006, many plans aren't specific enough in determining what protections need to be offered to miners, and information about these protections varied, GAO said. For example, some plans did not specify whether refuges of air would be provided to miners working in certain areas of the mine to help them survive if they are trapped after an accident. The GAO report faulted MSHA for failing to ensure the quality of these plans.

In addition, two years after Congress required the industry to install more safety equipment, many underground miners still don't have sufficient emergency breathable air supplies or better communications equipment due to a shortage of equipment and a backlog of orders, GAO said. Furthermore, MSHA has been slow to determine which wireless communication technologies it will allow mines to use. The Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006, requires wireless communications systems to be installed in all mines by June 2009.

The GAO audit, requested by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., was based in part on visits to MSHA district offices and mines in Kentucky and West Virginia, the states with the largest number of underground coal mines. Miller, who is chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, introduced legislation passed by the House in January 2008 to build on the 2006 law requiring the response plans and other safety measures.

Miller, in response to the report's release, said MSHA's failure to lead is putting miners at risk.

“It is outrageous that the very problems that led to the deaths of 12 men at the Sago mine are still problems affecting most mines today,” said Miller, referring to the 2006 West Virginia accident that sparked public and legislative attention to mine safety.

GAO recommended that MSHA clarify its guidance on the requirements for key components of emergency response plans; develop guidance on how mines can meet the June 2009 requirement for wireless communications systems; and take steps to analyze information on plans and their enforcement.

While MSHA agreed with the recommendations and noted several actions it is taking or intends to take to implement them, it also said that any wireless communications system should be completely wireless and that such a system currently doesn't exist.

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