Out of air

May 23, 2006

THIS TIME — Another explosion deep underground, another American mountain community enveloped in grief, another tragedy that only begins to make any sense if it adds impetus for much tougher inspections and enforcement of worker safety conditions at this nation's coal mines.

This time - only a little more than five months after 12 West Virginia miners survived an explosion but then exhausted their emergency oxygen while waiting to be rescued - three of the five dead southeastern Kentucky miners appear to have suffocated in similar fashion after an underground blast Saturday.

Even the one miner who managed to get out alive reportedly said that his oxygen-supply device didn't work right, causing him to pass out several times.

The latest mine deaths came only a few days after families of the victims of the Sago accident in West Virginia had been in Washington lobbying the U.S. House to pass mine-safety legislation just approved by a Senate committee - a bill intended to increase the availability of emergency oxygen in underground mines, among several safety provisions.

The weekend accident at Kentucky's Darby Mine No. 1 also occurred just weeks short of a new, post-Sago state law that, as of July 12, will increase the frequency of state mine inspections and require additional air-supply devices in mines.

That will be too late for the five Darby miners who died as a result of a large blast initially believed to have been triggered by leaking methane that ignited, leading to an explosion of accumulated coal dust.

Coal mine operators are supposed to clean up coal dust and apply crushed limestone to suppress explosion hazards. In the last month alone, the Darby mine reportedly had been cited by federal inspectors 10 times for safety violations, including once for not cleaning up coal dust. Darby's operators were fined $500 for the coal-dust violation.

With Appalachian coal earning high prices these days, many more mines are running, including some once-closed, marginal operations. After years of falling miner-injury rates and death totals, 31 U.S. miners have died so far this year - nine more than in all of last year. The Darby disaster indicates that mine safety is not just a West Virginia or Kentucky problem, but a federal problem - one that gives a lot of credence to Bush administration critics' claims that federal enforcement of safety regulations has been lax.

The deaths of the men who ran out of air in the Darby mine will doubtless produce more talk of even more mine-safety reform measures. Mine disasters have always tended to do that. But new laws will turn out to be only so much hot air - and no miner will be any safer - unless they are backed with vigorous federal and state enforcement.

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