As I stay tuned for news on the fate of the six coal miners trapped at the Crandall Canyon mine in Emery County, Utah I’ve heard numerous tv and radio reporters say “hundreds of mine rescuers” have converged near the worksite to assist with the rescue operation.  Who are these “mine rescuers”?

They include the official mine-rescue teams, typically a 6-person group especially trained and equipped to enter a mine after an explosion, fire, roof fall or other catastrophe occurs, as well as scores of other individuals with specialized knowledge or equipment to assist with the rescue operations.  In some cases, those commanding the rescue need help from technicians, such as a drill rig operator who can bore down into the mine to create a new shaft to supply air underground.  Or it may be a team of bulldozer operators to build a road over undevelop mountain land so that the drill rig can be situated at just the right location.  Or it might be experts geologists or mining engineers.  Allthough these individuals are not mine-rescue team members per se, they contribute substantially to the rescue effort.  

Of course, the other key performers are the official mine rescue teams.  Mr. Robert Murray, of Murray Energy and operator of the Crandall Canyon coal mine, reported that 16 mine rescue teams are assembled near the site.  One is reported to be from another coal mine operated by Rocky Mountain Power Company, but I haven’t found information yet on the names of the other teams.  In the U.S. today, there are 187 mine rescue teams registered with MSHA–103 specializing in coal mining and the balance trained in metal and non-metal mine rescue.  Of the rescue teams trainined for coal mines, 76 are listed as company-supported teams, 20 are sponsored by State agencies,  two are MSHA teams, and the rest have a mixture of funding-support.  The MSHA data shows that seven teams are located in Utah, including two teams from other coal mines in Huntington.

MSHA’s current regulations (Part 49) require every underground mine operator (coal, metal and nonmetal mines) to have made arrangements so that at least two mine rescue teams are no more than two-hours travel time away from their mine.  In some cases, a mining company will establish and supported their own teams (photos here, here,  (here), while in other cases and operator will contract with another mine’s team.  The regulations also define the physical capabilities of the team members as well as the requirements for previous mining experience, 20-hours of initial specialized mine rescue training, and annual training in monthly or bi-monthly sessions. 

Throughout the year, many mine rescue teams participate in regional training contests at which they solve “hypothetical” mine emergencies—they work the problem.  A national mine rescue contest is held every year (alternating between coal teams and metal-and-nonmetal teams) with about 40 of the best teams competing over three days for the coveted national champion designation.

The last competition for coal mine rescue teams was held in September 2005.  Forty-six teams participated overall, with the Pinnacle Mining Company’s Pinnacle team taking the top honors (2nd place: CONSOL’s Bailey team; 3rd place: Eastern Associated’s Southern Appalchia team.)  The nation’s best coal mine rescue teams will participate in their next national competition from August 29-September 1, 2007 in Nashville.

The last competition for metal and nonmetal teams was held in July 2006, with 33 teams.  FMC’s White and Red teams earned first and second place honors, with Morton Salt’s Weeks Island, Louisiana’s team taking third place.

The Sago disaster focused some attention on long-standing weaknesses and limitations in the current mine rescue structure, including too few high-caliber teams, aging team-members, and outdated communication devices.  The 2006 MINER Act requires MSHA to issue new regulations by December 2007 governing mine rescue teams.  The agency has not yet issued a Federal Register notice outlining the changes it proposes to make.