The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) opened a new Kentucky center on Sept. 18, aimed at improving its capacity to handle rescues, with a response truck, communication systems and portable, high-tech equipment to test for poisonous and explosive gases.
The center, in Madisonville, is the fourth in the nation but the first in the state, and in the coalfield that includes Western Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana.
The station will allow faster and safer rescue operations throughout the Midwest if needed, said Joe Main, head of MSHA.
“Hopefully, we’ll never have to use it” in a real emergency, Main said.
Main was in Kentucky this week to speak at a national mine-safety rescue competition and open the emergency operations center.
Main told the Lexington Herald-Leader that he has a number of other plans and hopes for improving mine rescue operations, including more rescue stations across the country and development of a helmet camera for rescuers so people outside the mine could see what’s going on underground.
His wish list also includes development of better wireless underground communications; an updated seismic sensor to help locate trapped miners; improved methods for miners to take refuge in a disaster; robots to go into mines when conditions are too dangerous for human rescuers; and a system to let miners wearing breathing machines — called self-rescuers — talk without removing the mouthpiece and exposing themselves to carbon monoxide.
It’s an ambitious list at a time when financial struggles in the U.S. coal industry mean less ability or incentive for coal companies or suppliers to develop technology that isn't mandated.
So, Main said, he's been in talks with people in China in hopes that providing a bigger market would create an incentive to invest in developing new technology.
Eastern Kentucky is among the places that has seen a sharp drop in coal production and jobs.
As a result, MSHA has cut staff in the region because there are fewer active mines.
Some safety advocates understood the agency would close the Pikeville district office, raising a concern over the potential that it would take the agency longer to respond to emergencies in some places.
However, Main said MSHA will not close the office. It will become a field office rather than a district office, but there will be staffers in Pikeville, he said.