Is a Miner's Life Worth the Price of Some Sensors?

Every coal-mining song is a lament, and for good reason. The work is brutal, the conditions appalling—and the miners are nearly invisible to the world outside their own towns. Except for when they die on the job, as 12 did on January 2, 2006, in the Sago Mine at Tallmansville, WV.

Very few people have the faintest idea how much the electric industry relies on coal. But the mine owners certainly do. The Sago Mine, with 145 employees (well, make that 133 now), is not large by national standards. But International Coal Group Inc., which bought the mine from Anker West Virginia Mining Co. two months ago, reported a $110 million net profit for 2005.

Safety Violations
Over the past two years, Sago has been cited for 273 safety violations. A third were deemed "significant and substantial" by the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration. And what were these failings? Roofs that collapsed unexpectedly, inadequate tunnel supports, concentrations of flammable coal dust. And, as we now know, high carbon monoxide levels as well. Yet a spokesman for International Coal Group said in response to a reporter's question that yes, he "felt comfortable" sending his miners down into Sago. The company, it seems, was in the process of making a pilot hole for a vent they planned to add to the area where the fatal explosion occurred. And the fans were working.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the largest fine the mine has ever paid for a violation is $440.00. Just the cost of doing business. Government regulators have never gone public with talk of closing Sago down, nor have they pursued criminal sanctions.

A Vanished Agency
There once existed a U.S. Bureau of Mines. Many of its personnel knew mining from first-hand experience, and kept busy devising practical safety devices and procedures. (You might have read about some of them in Sensors.) But this bureau, established in 1910, was in effect dissolved in 1996 by the U.S. Congress—ostensibly as a cost-cutting measure. So much for real expertise. So much for at least a modicum of oversight by a neutral organization.

Candidate Preventives
So why are you seeing this in Sensors? Because sensors could have saved those 12—and who knows how many other lives. The technology is readily available. Strain gauges and load cells that advise of impending structural failures as well as ominous shifting in the coal seams. Portable sensors for particulates (e.g., coal dust) and noxious gases. Lightning detectors that indicate approaching electrical storms (one guess is that a lightning strike set off the explosion in Sago). And active RFID devices that keep track of miners and equipment.

After the Sago disaster, it took 24 hours to build a road so drilling equipment could be brought in and to figure out the probable location of the trapped miners. Two days would likely have meant the difference between 12 funerals and 12 men going home at the end of their shift. They died gradually of CO poisoning, as revealed by the letters they wrote to their families. (As of this writing, hope remains for the solitary survivor, perhaps saved by his fellow miners who perished.)

What Communication?
The horror was compounded by a false report from the authorities that the miners were alive. Church bells rang and the rejoicing was universal (save for the family of the miner known to have been killed by the initial blast). Three hours later, in this, the Information Age, the news was different. And the response predictable. No one has yet explained the disconnect between the two announcements, but someone sure should. Did another road have to be built for the spin doctors to roll in?

Read More
There are better ways to operate a mine, and you can read about two of them: "When Safety Matters: Using Active RFID Down the Mines" and "Who, What, Where—Asset Management for Mining Operations."

Please do.