STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Next, we'll report on an effort to prevent disasters here in the United States. More than 30 coal miners have died in accidents this year and the industry is under pressure to improve safety. That is prompting a debate about installing refuge chambers deep inside mines.
NPR's Nell Boyce visited the kind of chamber that's being proposed.
NELL BOYCE reporting:
The San Juan Coal Mine lies beneath the New Mexico Desert over 500 feet down. Men and women work inside tunnels that stretch for miles. In one tunnel, a few miners operate a conveyor belt. If there was an explosion here, the workers are trained to get out of the mine.
But if the exits are blocked, they could follow reflective signs to a tunnel that ends abruptly. There's a wall and a small door. Behind the door is a refuge chamber. It's nothing fancy. Just a room carved into the coal seam. But you can hear what makes this place special.
Mr. SCOTT LANGLEY (Operations Manager, San Juan Coal Mine): That's the air.
BOYCE: Fresh air rushes into the room through a pipe that comes down from the surface. Scott Langley is the operations manager for the mine.
Mr. LANGLEY: There's enough for in the range of 100 people, is what that would provide oxygen to.
BOYCE: This chamber also has a phone line to the surface and it's well stocked with supplies.
Mr. LANGLEY: There's wool blankets, dry food, batteries and lanterns, Nicorette gum.
BOYCE: Nicorette gum, really?
Mr. LANGLEY: Well, you put them in here, it's a stressful situation and then you tell them, and by the way, you've just quit smoking while you're at it.
BOYCE: The shelter was built just a couple of months ago, after the Sago disaster in West Virginia. That prompted managers here to rethink safety plans. The decision to put in refuges was highly unusual. The U.S. has over 1,300 coal mines, but only a handful have refuges. They're not required by law. That could soon change.
West Virginia and other big mining states are looking at the idea. So is Congress. But some experts worry that in a coal mine, refuges might actually endanger workers by tempting them to stay in a burning mine.
Mr. ROBERT FRIEND (Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration): Advocates of emergency shelters should keep in mind that coal is a fuel. And in a coal mine, a fire has virtually unlimited fuel.
BOYCE: Robert Friend is an official at the official at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
During a recent speech, he noted that the federal government does require other kinds of mines to have refuges. They're found in dozens of metal and mineral mines. And, he said, shelters can save lives. Just a few weeks after Sago, 72 Canadian miners safely spent the night in shelters after an equipment fire filled their mine with smoke.
But Friend stressed that this was not a coal mine. The Canadian miners were digging a mineral called pot ash.
Mr. FRIEND: Pot ash is a fire retardant. It isn't a fuel. There is a big difference.
BOYCE: In a coal mine, even the dust in the air can explode like gunpowder. So some experts say the kinds of refuge chambers you see in other mines aren't appropriate for coal mines.
For example, some mines use portable refuge chambers. They look sort of like trailers. But they're made out of metal, and in a raging fire they could become ovens.
Other experts say that's an extreme scenario. Jim Dean is acting director of the West Virginia Mine Safety Office. He says look at how miners usually die.
Mr. JIM DEAN (Acting Director, West Virginia Mine Safety Office): If you look at the incidents that have happened, what killed these individuals are a dangerous atmosphere. It's not necessarily the fire.
BOYCE: The mine fills with smoke and people have nowhere to hide die from carbon monoxide. Dean says that's what happened at Sago and other recent mine disasters.
Mr. DEAN: So what the emergency chambers and shelters are really used for is providing a safe atmosphere, not necessarily preventing any damage from fire.
BOYCE: Dean's office has put together an expert panel to assess safety technologies, including refuges. It's just now finishing up its report, which West Virginia will use to help set new regulations.
Congress is also considering a bill. It would require federal regulators to test different refuge technologies in coal mines. Some people think that testing should have been done long ago.
Dennis O'Dell is with the United Mine Workers of America. He says the Federal Mine Agency already has the authority to require refuges, and expert panels have recommended using them in coal mines since 1969.
Mr. DENNIS O'DELL (United Mine Workers of America): They knew there was a need clear back then. I think it's about time we step forward and do the right thing.
BOYCE: O'Dell thinks the real objection is just one word, money.
Mr. O'DELL: I think the objection to putting chambers into coal mines is because it's cost factor.
BOYCE: A sophisticated, portable refuge chamber can run $100,000 or more. But a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, an industry group, says money isn't the problem, it's practicality. Traditional refuges might not fit in smaller coal mines, which can have ceilings just a few feet high. And, he said, it may be hard to train workers on when to seek refuge and when to run.
At the San Juan mine, Scott Langley says training wasn't difficult. His workers know that getting out is always the first choice. And here, building shelters wasn't that difficult or expensive.
Mr. SCOTT LANGLEY (San Juan Coal Miner): People like them. They know its there, that if that's the choice that's left, it's better than not having it.
BOYCE: The mine has two chambers that are ready to use and a third is under construction.
Nell Boyce, NPR News.
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