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Lack of incentives slows the deployment of mine safety equipment

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Harnessing new technology to make underground coal mining safer is being hindered by a simple economic reality: The market is too small.

Government regulators and industry insiders say there's not enough profit potential to attract the capital needed to develop and manufacture modern tracking and communications equipment for coal mines. There's also little incentive to step up production of established products such as emergency air supplies carried by miners.

As a result, observers say it will be difficult, if not impossible, for mining companies to comply with new safety standards approved by West Virginia and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration after two accidents killed 14 West Virginia miners in January.

''Can we meet all the requirements of the law at the current time?" said Jim Dean, West Virginia's acting mine safety director. ''That's pretty tough."

West Virginia now requires mines to provide emergency communication and tracking equipment, underground stockpiles of emergency breathing equipment and rescue chambers, among other things. And the Mine Safety and Health Administration has mandated that all underground coal mines store additional air supplies and install lifelines to guide miners to safety.

The problem is, much of the equipment doesn't exist. And what does exist, chiefly emergency air equipment, is scarce.

Entrepreneurs have come up with novel ideas for communications, tracking, air supplies, and even emergency shelters in response to West Virginia's new law and federal rules. Most of those products are still unavailable, have not been deemed safe by regulators, and wouldn't be profitable because of the small market.

That might seem counterintuitive. After all, coal mining is a giant industry, dominated by multibillion-dollar international companies such as St. Louis-based Peabody Energy Corp. The United States has more than 625 underground coal mines employing 43,000 miners.

But industry insiders say those numbers are deceptive, especially when it comes to rare purchases like emergency communications equipment and air supplies. They say the market is small, stagnant, and prone to boom-and-bust cycles.

Take the case of so-called self-contained self-rescuers -- emergency air equipment.

Regulators and industry insiders say there's at least a 10-month backlog of orders, but the devices rarely need replacing. At $600 apiece, every US miner could be supplied with two for only $52 million.

Concern about air packs was renewed Thursday when the sole survivor of the Sago Mine accident said four of his crew's 12 rescuers did not work.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration maintains that testing of air packs recovered from Sago showed that those that were activated would have functioned properly, but the agency has found problems with CSE air packs before.

Bruce Watzman, a lobbyist for the National Mining Association, said the industry's size has been a constraint for years.

''We are a small industry," he said. ''For many, that size has been a hindrance to them entering the marketplace."

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