Think They're Reading My Blog?

The official hearings on the Sago Mine disaster began this past Monday, January 23, 2006. Miners have been interviewed. Corrective measures have been discussed. Among them: Personal tracking devices that would pinpoint the location of each miner and each piece of equipment. Portable sources of oxygen. Wearable sensors that would sound an alarm if a miner were to cease all activity for more than the time required to attend to personal matters. And a requirement that a call for help—or at least for a standby—go out within 15 minutes of a reported or suspected accident. As for me, I am betting on the card that reads "Unlikely to Happen."

Before you ask, I will tell you that I am not a coal miner. No one I know is or has ever been a coal miner. I have, though, gone into an abandoned coal mine in eastern Tennessee, an experience that instantly redefined dark (despite my helmet-mounted carbon-arc lamp); dank (Lord, how those walls sweated and dripped); evil smells; and isolation.

Now the Alma
To catch up with this thread, you might want to read my earlier comments. After I wrote that blog, another miner was lost in Kentucky and then two more in West Virginia. They died in the Alma No. 1 Mine near Melville as a result of a fire on a conveyor belt deep under ground. There are 6–7 miles of tunnel in the Alma, a coal mine that racked up more than 100 safety violations last year. What seems to have happened was that signals from CO sensors alerted some of the miners and they rode out on the carts. Smoke from the fire, however, was so dense that the two who died perhaps could not find their way to those carts and safety. What's worse, though, was that the rescuers could not see who was still below. They had to try hollering and then stay very quiet and listen for an answer. Thermal cameras, the investigators ventured, would have been helpful. Well, yes, they would. As would robotic crawlers and extremely sensitive microphones.

The Power of Amnesia
Why am I skeptical about the likelihood of putting sensing technology into the eastern coal mines? Does anyone remember that on September 23, 2001, 13 miners were killed by a roof collapse followed by a methane explosion in the Jim Walter No. 5 mine, the nation's deepest, in Brookwood, AL? Of these miners, 12 had gone in to rescue their trapped co-workers. It was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since 1984, but it got lost in the horror of the 9/11 assaults. Sensor-based safety technology was certainly available by 2001. And get this: At the Sago Mine, air-quality monitors positioned two miles from the mine entrance reported 2200 ppm of CO, more than five times the level considered safe for humans and as long as six hours after the explosion that took those 12 lives. The sensors were on the job but I guess their human supervisors weren't.

What's Next?
The hearings will drone on and on. More miners will be invited to testify, those in a position to make real improvements will nod sympathetically, and courtesy will prevail. Money matters will be tastefully omitted from the proceedings. The upshot will be silence, torpor, and amnesia. If I were invited to the table, I would ask this question: Are you worried about how much the sensors and other safety devices would cost, or are you trying to decide if they're worth the price?