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Remarks by Dave D. Lauriski
Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health
Before the National Research Council
Committee on Earth Sciences
Washington, D.C.
November 20, 2002

A changing industry

It's a pleasure to be here. Among this distinguished group I see some well-known faces - we've worked together for a long time to protect miners' safety and health, and it's good to see you again. Other faces are new to me; it's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, and I hope this meeting will lead to some longer-term partnerships.

As you are aware, the coal industry has changed greatly since the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act took effect more than 30 years ago. Of course, coal remains critical to the nation's economy. In the 21st Century, coal production is at record levels.

Our coal industry has been challenged to expand and change, in order to meet the demands on it.

The industry has expanded through the growth of surface mining. In 1969, the industry produced about 569 million tons, with underground mines accounting for about 61 percent of the total. Last year, total coal production came to more than 1.1 billion tons, with surface mines accounting for about 66 percent of production.

It has expanded through growth in the Western states -- today, Wyoming leads the nation in coal production.

Mines are pushing into new seams, and areas where -- in the past -- mining was prohibitively difficult or costly.

At the same time, the industry has expanded through increased productivity. As you know, we have fewer coal mines and fewer coal miners producing more coal today than at any time in recent history.

Changes in technology have largely driven these dynamics. Longwalls, deep-cut remote continuous miners, and super-sections have made production levels possible that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago.

Many of these changes in technology have been favorable to safety and health. In high-productivity operations, fewer miners are exposed to hazards. Some changes have presented new challenges, such as controlling respirable dust in longwall operations, or protecting miners working around remote-controlled equipment.

Meanwhile, the industry is changing demographically as well. The mine workforce in general is aging. More miners are employees of independent contractors.

Expectations regarding health and safety also are higher. Thirty years ago, 100 coal mining fatalities in a year might have been thought a relatively good record. A certain fatalism still existed in regard to mining deaths, injuries and illnesses in some quarters. No longer.

Today, near misses and safety incidents with no injuries involved can lead to greater public scrutiny and concern than many a fatal accident would have received in the past. Recent examples include the Martin County coal slurry spill two years ago in Kentucky, and the dramatic Quecreek rescue this year in Pennsylvania.

In the wake of these incidents, miners, their families and communities, the mining industry and the public look to us for answers -- how can we make sure a similar incident will not happen again?

To meet these expectations -- and our own -- in today's changing coal industry, we cannot rely on the tried and true. There are new questions requiring new answers. Constant ongoing research is needed into better means of creating a safe and healthful industry. We in MSHA, as we go about our work in the mines, in daily contact with miners and mine operators, are always looking for answers that we can share and put to practical service in the mining community.

Laws including the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 and the Federal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1977 have been responsible for significant improvements in safety and health in the mining industry.

Today mining deaths are at all-time lows. Non-fatal injury incidence rates have declined over the long term, and they too are at all-time lows.

Because fatalities and injuries are so visible, MSHA and the mining community first focused their efforts on improving safety. With success in safety, we have focused more effort in recent years on health issues. Chronic lung diseases, like coal workers' pneumoconiosis (black lung) and silicosis, have declined . . . as has noise-induced hearing loss.

Enforcement of standards by MSHA deserves significant credit. So does the education of the mining community at large and the universal training in safety and health afforded to miners. At the same time, this progress would not have been nearly so great without research and new technology. MSHA, the former Bureau of Mines, NIOSH and industry historically have worked together on many of these innovations.

Let me mention just a few examples of significant safety technology: At the same time, while we have enjoyed great successes in improving mine safety, rates of improvement have leveled-off and plateaued in the 1990's.

And in spite of engineering controls, improvements in mine production capacity (larger, more powerful mining machines) have increased the potential for dust and noise generation; we must maintain our focus on health hazards in the 21st Century.

Even as we seek to address new or unique hazards, we must continue to be ever vigilant in guarding against roof falls, methane ignitions, coal dust explosions and moving equipment hazards.

At MSHA, we are employing a new dynamic to address these needs, by striking a balance between enforcement, education and training, and technical support (all of which are agency responsibilities mandated by the Mine Act).

Common to each of these tools in the agency arsenal is an element of compliance assistance to help the mining community meet its obligations.

Secretary Chao has established a 21st Century Workforce Initiative, whose goal is to ensure that all American workers have as fulfilling and financially rewarding a career as they aspire to have, and to make sure that no worker gets left behind in the limitless potential of the dynamic, global economy of this new millennium. Safe and healthful mine workplaces are one critical phase of these Department-wide efforts, and compliance assistance is critical to achieving quality workplaces.

Recent areas of research

New and innovative technologies must be identified and brought to bear on both our new and all-too-familiar hazards.

Here are some areas of recent research: MSHA identified a high-strength glass used in aircraft as a way to keep the windshield from breaking and allowing the operator's compartment to fill up with coal. The agency tested it in the laboratory at a mine and determined that it could withstand the pressure of the coal. Mine operators were encouraged to adopt it and to equip their bulldozers in addition with communication devices, a button the operator can push to remotely shut the coal feeders, and SCSR's for use until rescued. In the last two years, three operators have been saved using the stronger glass. Not all research involves hardware. In these efforts we are actively partnering with NIOSH, manufacturers, mine operators and a wide variety of other groups. We certainly recognize a need for research from every possible source, and would welcome further partnerships with the National Research Council.

Open questions: where more research is needed:

If there is one single area where we see a crying need for more research it is in determining the boundaries of abandoned underground mines.

On average, twice a week, every week, an underground mine breaks through into an old abandoned mine or old mine workings and encounters water, gas or slurry. In most instances the harm experienced proves not to be great, but the potential in every instance is very real.

This problem came to the wide public attention with the Quecreek accident. But it has not been limited to that. It was also an issue in the Martin County slurry spill.

At Quecreek, miners knew they were near an old, abandoned mine, but had inaccurate information about the distance. We must remember that as many as 18 -- there were nine trapped and nine who barely escaped being trapped - 18 potential fatalities that were averted only by an exemplary combination of knowledge, skill, technology, teamwork, and good fortune.

In the Martin County incident, the mine map at the breakthrough location was determined to be accurate, and the problem turned out to be in the construction of a silt barrier intended to prevent leakage into those old works. Both cases, however, illustrate that there is a definite need for some method to verify the accuracy of mine maps and to determine the extent of old mine workings without endangering miners.

Today we rely on mine maps that a professional engineer certifies to the best of his knowledge. If maps are questionable or non-existent, how can we assess where old mine workings are located? What are the alternatives to drilling in advance of production? Are there technologies in use in the oil and natural gas exploration and production industries that have application in underground coal mining?

In the aftermath of the Quecreek incident, MSHA held a "Symposium on Geotechnical Methods for Mine Mapping Verification" in Charleston, W.Va. We asked for information on ways to prevent a similar accident. There were over 400 participants from across the coal industry. During the symposium, inundation incidences were discussed, state agencies reviewed their mapping problems and speakers from industry and consultants presented possible solutions to detecting abandoned mines in advance of mining.

Some of the techniques discussed included Long-hole In-seam Drilling, True Reflective Tomography, Radio Imaging Methods, Horizon Sensors, Ground-Penetrating Radar and Satellite/aerial Imaging. We are evaluating this information, as well as preparing to place it on our web site.

Each of these techniques has advantages and disadvantages in terms of relative speed, cumbersomeness, expense and/or accuracy. MSHA would welcome assistance in evaluating the potential of any and all these technologies. We would also be interested in learning if other techniques are available.

Remotely sensing voids from the surface would allow us to detect voids during the permitting process. Alternately, we would like a method that could be used at the coal face to determine the location of a void or old mine workings. This same technology could find application in addressing the safety of mine impoundments in proximity to abandoned works.

Some other general areas where long-term, in-depth research could be of significant benefit: In closing, coal research in the area of mine safety and health is an iterative process. We know where we've been, we know where we are, and we are a little less sure of where we need to go in the future.

To assist us in this inquiry, we rely on our trained and experienced workforce, our government partners and our stakeholders in the mining community. We do not profess to have all the answers. We have problems and we are in need of solutions.

The NRC has great resources; MSHA and the mining community need answers to many technical questions. We would welcome the assistance of the National Research Council in adding definition to areas of promising research for achieving improved miner safety and health.

Thank you for your kind attention.