West Virginia miners to get electronic tracking devices

Editor's note: This story was updated at 4:45 p.m. Jan. 24, 2006, to add information. The fifth paragraph is new.

West Virginia lawmakers unanimously passed legislation Jan. 23 requiring miners to wear electronic tracking devices and carry wireless emergency communications equipment when working underground.

Swift passage of the bill was in direct response to the deaths of 14 miners in two separate incidents since the beginning of this year. A Jan. 2 explosion trapped 13 miners at the Sago mine in Upshur County, and only one survived. A Jan. 19 fire at the Aracoma mine in Logan County trapped two miners whose bodies were found two days later.

Gov. Joe Manchin, who unveiled the legislation Monday morning, is expected to sign the bill into law.

Under the legislation, miners, who will receive training on the communications equipment and refresher courses each year, should be able to receive communications at any location throughout the mine from the surface. During accidents or other emergencies, tracking devices would provide real-time monitoring and physical location of miners underground.

The bill includes a provision to protect miners' privacy when they're wearing the monitoring technology. It states that no one “shall discharge or discriminate against any miner based on information gathered by a wireless tracking device during nonemergency monitoring.”

The law requires mine operators to install the necessary equipment to enable tracking and communications. It also makes it a crime to tamper with or knowingly remove communications equipment or tracking devices, which would deprive miners of aid. Miners would also get additional safety equipment and enhancements under the bill.

The legislation also creates a rapid response system that includes an around-the-clock emergency operations center and an updated list of contact information.

The National Mining Association (NMA), which represents the mining industry, also announced yesterday the formation of a nine-member Mine Safety Technology and Training Commission that will examine safety procedures and training communications technologies, mine rescue technology, and necessary policy changes.

The commission, which will be led by Larry Grayson, chairman and professor of mining and nuclear engineering at the University of Missouri at Rolla, will make preliminary recommendations in July and issue final ones by the end of the year.

In testimony before a Senate Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee yesterday, Bruce Watzman, NMA’s vice president of safety and health, said improving coal mine safety and health requires reviewing structural and technological barriers and fostering technology innovation.

“Technologies such as the introduction of remote control miners, integrated methane monitors on mining equipment, atmospheric monitoring systems, longwall mining systems and canopies on equipment are a few of the advances that have contributed to the industry’s improved safety record,” he said in his testimony.

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