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Utah collapse brings closer scrutiny of mine safety reform

As tunneling to reach trapped Utah coal miners progresses slowly, officials assess the nation's implementation of changes mandated after the Sago disaster.

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In the year and a half since a coal-mine disaster in West Virginia gripped the nation and caused fresh scrutiny of mine safety regulations, the US government has beefed up efforts to keep miners that may be trapped below ground alive longer and redoubled efforts to identify potential safety hazards and fine companies.

Now, as another desperate race against time unfolds in another coal mine 2,000 miles away, industry observers confirm that overall mine safety has improved, but say more can be done by the industry to improve mining practices.

"The government learned lessons from Sago," says J. Davitt McAteer, a former official with the US government's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), referring to the mine explosion in West Virginia in which 12 miners perished and one, miraculously, survived.

Heralded as the most significant mining legislation in 30 years, the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, signed into law by President Bush on June 15, 2006, was a result of investigations into the Sago accident.

The three key changes, Mr. McAteer says, are requirements to provide enough oxygen for workers to survive for as long as 50 hours, provide wireless communications, and harden the chambers where miners can await rescue.

The general rule is that "if you can keep them alive for 50 hours, we can get to them," says McAteer, now vice president at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. The six miners now trapped in a Utah coal mine have enough air and water to survive for several days, according to officials at the Crandall Canyon Mine.

McAteer says it appears, because officials have no way to communicate with the trapped miners, that the Crandall Canyon Mine still used the old land-line telephone system. The new legislation called for wireless communications to be developed within three years, so the Crandall Canyon Mine would have been in compliance.

The other most important change called for, according to McAteer, was the hardening of chambers in which miners can hold out during rescue efforts. Those were required in West Virginia but not in the rest of the country.

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