WASHINGTON -- House lawmakers pressed industry and government officials yesterday to explain why miners are going without life-saving technology. A string of accidents has killed 24 US miners this year.
Representative Charlie Norwood, Republican of Georgia, asked officials with a US agency that oversees mine safety why victims of the Jan. 2 accident at West Virginia's Sago Mine were unable to communicate with rescuers.
''We sit right down there in Houston and we talk with astronauts on the moon," said Norwood, who chaired the hearing before an Education and the Workforce subcommittee. ''Now why in the dickens can't we talk to these men underground?"
Twelve miners were killed in the Sago accident, and a survivor is recovering from carbon monoxide poisoning. It took rescuers more than 40 hours to pull the victims out, and the miners and rescuers were unable to communicate with one another.
Bruce Watzman, the top safety official at the National Mining Association, testified that reliable two-way technology that can be used in mines isn't on the market.
Dennis O'Dell, the top safety official at United Mine Workers, said the Mine Safety and Health Administration should require the use of airtight rescue chambers in all coal mines. They are credited with saving the lives of 72 Canadian potash miners last month.
O'Dell said that had there been such a chamber at the Sago Mine, ''those miners would have been alive today."
The Sago miners barricaded themselves behind a makeshift curtain rather than trying to get out of the mine on their own.
The New York Times reported today that the Bush administration has decreased major fines for safety violations since 2001, and in nearly half the cases has not collected fines, according to an analysis of federal data done by the Times. According to the newspaper, records also show that in the past two years the federal mine safety agency has failed to turn over delinquent cases to the Treasury for collection. The Times predicted that the agency is likely to face tough questions about its performance at a Senate oversight hearing today.
Also discussed at yesterday's House panel hearing was a miner-tracking system that is not used in the United States.