United States world leader in mine safety, expert says
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Just days before a group of Pennsylvania miners were trapped in a flooded shaft for three days, nine miners in China survived a similar ordeal.
While the rescue here inspired the nation, the survival of the Chinese after eight days underground was even more of a rarity.
China produces slightly more coal than the United States, but has many times the fatalities due to inferior safety practices. Mine disasters are also common in the Ukraine, where 20 miners died in an accident three days before the Pennsylvania rescue.
China and the Ukraine are still trying to implement safety techniques in use in the United States for more than three decades, including strict ventilation, roof-support and training requirements, a Penn State mine safety expert said.
"Health and safety regulations passed at the federal level in 1969 really revolutionized several aspects of underground coal mining in the United States," said Raja Romney, a professor emeritus of mining engineering.
The Quecreek accident that trapped the nine miners near Somerset was blamed on a mapping problem that led the crew to breach an adjacent, water-filled abandoned mine they thought was 300 feet away. Problems behind the rash of mining disasters in China and Ukraine are more basic.
China is the world's largest coal producer, churning out 1.5 billion tons a year for its own power plants and industries and for export to Japan, which closed its last coal mine in January.
But China's mines often lack such basic equipment as ventilation gear and explosions are frequent.
According to China's state Coal Mine Safety Supervision Bureau, more than 3,500 miners have been killed in gas explosions, floods and other mining accidents this year; 5,798 died last year. The industry's death rate per million tons mined is more than 100 times that in the United States and 20 times the worldwide rate.
Many deaths may go unreported. State media and Chinese government officials reported the recovery of 18 bodies in May from a mine whose owner hid the body of one dead miner, destroyed employee records and used paint to conceal burn marks at the mine entrance.
In contrast, the United States, second in world production at 1.1 billion tons, had 43 fatalities last year and 17 though July 11, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said.
Ukraine's mines produce about a tenth as much coal — 109 million tons — but have one of the highest accident rates, blamed on poor maintenance and neglected safety since subsidies ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Romney, who has visited underground coal mines worldwide, said many Chinese and Ukrainian mines are at far greater depths than Quecreek, and have thin, steeply sloping seams that produce more methane and multiply the engineering challenges.
Romney is on a commission Gov. Mark Schweiker named to examine mine safety and recommend changes to prevent a recurrence of the Quecreek accident. But overall, he applauded mine safety in the United States.
"The high productivity rates we are able to achieve have really helped ensure that not as many miners are exposed," Romney said.