64 Percent Of U.S. Mines Lack Communications Gear: MSHA

04/08/2011 09:42 am ET | Updated Jun 08, 2011

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- U.S. coal mine operators remain well short of meeting a 5-year-old congressional mandate to equip underground mines with high-tech systems for communicating to the surface and tracking the movements of miners, a federal official said.

The figures show 64 percent of more than 500 underground coal mines don't have the required equipment, Mine Safety and Health Administration official Dave Chirdon told The Associated Press on Thursday. Chirdon was to release the numbers at an industry conference Friday in West Virginia.

The equipment now required is supposed to keep near constant track of miners from the moment they head underground, and enable them to communicate with the surface even after an explosion.

Massey Energy Co. had some of its system installed at its Upper Big Branch mine at the time of the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 men. Regulators have said the blast destroyed the system, rendering it unusable during a nearly weeklong search for some of the victims.

The numbers show 192 out of 529 mines across the country lacked a full set of equipment as of February. Most, however, have done part of the work.

"We're expecting them all to be compliant by June 15," Chirdon said. "The other 64 percent aren't starting from scratch."

The numbers are far higher than 2010. At the time, just 34 of 529 mines, or 6.4 percent, were in compliance, Chirdon said.

Mines that miss the June 15 deadline face unspecified enforcement action, MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said.

The mandate was imposed after the January 2006 deaths of 12 miners trapped at West Virginia's Sago Mine following an explosion. Rescuers couldn't contact them, nor did they know where to look for them.

The National Mining Association had no immediate comment.