CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) _ Nearly 17 months after the Sago Mine explosion, the nation's highest profile mine disaster in a generation continues to change the industry.
Federal regulators are poised to upend a decades old practice of sealing and forgetting abandoned mine sections following their conclusion that lightning sparked methane in a sealed section of the Sago.
Some 177 underground mines in West Virginia, the nation's No. 1 underground coal producer, are preparing to buy airtight refuge chambers and wireless communications and tracking gear, which help rescue miners trapped underground. Eleven of the 12 men killed at Sago died after an extended entrapment.
Meanwhile, government researchers say recent tests suggest adding carbon fiber could strengthen so-called alternative seals like the foam blocks obliterated by the methane-gas explosion at Sago. Alternative seals account for an estimated six of every 10 seals in the country.
People in the industry say the latest requirements come at a terrible time.
Not only are coal companies struggling to meet state and federal safety requirements adopted shortly after Sago, but operations in Central and Northern Appalachia are fighting weak prices and sluggish demand. U.S. Energy Information Administration figures show overall production is down more than 9 percent this year in Kentucky and more than 11 percent in the state's eastern coalfields. In West Virginia, EIA figures show production is off more than 7 percent, and the drop is higher than 10 percent in the state's southern coalfields.
``We've had a lot of things that are impacting the ability to mine coal in Appalachia,'' said Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, which represents coal operators in the nation's third largest coal producing state.
While price is the biggest problem _ Central Appalachian coal prices have dropped from higher than $50 a ton to the low $40-range over the past year _ Caylor ranks rising costs for underground mines second.
``We're seeing newer issues coming out like the mine rescue teams and the seals,'' he said. ``They're coming at a bad time.''
The feeling is much the same in West Virginia, the nation's second largest coal producer, says Bill Raney, president of the state's coal association.
``All of these things, of course, continue to increase the cost of doing business and no one has ever raised that as an argument,'' Raney said. ``That's just not simply on their mind, but what happens is it gets reflected in their marketplace.''
The Congressional Budget Office estimated the federal Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act would cost the industry $128 million when it was passed last June, though the figure didn't include lost production during training and other expenses.
Since then, costs have accelerated. The West Virginia Coal Association, for instance, has suggested that shelter chambers will cost the state's underground mine operators perhaps $50 million.
Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy, for instance, is billing customers for higher safety costs, which it estimates will range between $25 million and $37 million from 2006 through 2009.
``Responses from customers have varied,'' Consol noted in its latest quarterly report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
The expenditures come as Consol says it's trimming 2.1 million tons of production in Central Appalachia by idling mines and delaying new operations in southern West Virginia due to weak prices. At the same time, Consol is investing in a joint venture surface mine north of Sheridan, Wyo.
St. Louis-based Peabody Energy says it's spent more than $10 million for additional air packs, storage boxes, training equipment and lifelines. And Peabody estimates wireless communications and tracking equipment will cost it another $10 million.
Peabody has since decided to spin off its Appalachian mining operations as a separate public company and focus on the surface mine-dominated Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, as well as Asia and Australia.
Despite rising costs, the pace of change since Sago has been impressive to the likes of Jeff Kohler, associate director for Mine Safety and Health Research at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
``If you step back and think about where we were a year ago we have made more progress in all of these areas,'' he said, ``than we've made in the last two decades.''
Now the industry is facing another major change because of Sago.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration says it's preparing emergency regulations for sealing up abandoned areas. The rules, which would take effect immediately, are tied to MSHA's conclusions about Sago.
MSHA says mines could leave abandoned areas opened. Or they could build explosion-proof seals.
A third option would be seals capable of withstanding blast pressures of at least 50 pounds per square inch. But in that case, mines would be required to monitor the atmosphere behind seals. If methane reached explosive concentrations, they'd be required to pump in inert gas or take steps such as evacuating miners.
``I'm scared that this provision will add a pretty significant cost,'' Caylor said. ``You're going to see a lot of the small guys just close up shop.''
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates there's 14,000 seals in underground coal mines across the country. The majority _ between 8,000 and 9,000 _ are so-called alternative seals constructed of lighter-weight foam block like those at Sago.
For now, there's no way to strengthen those seals. Mines may be forced to choose between two equally unappealing alternatives. Experts say removing seals and ventilating abandoned areas brings a whole new set of risks to miners and government inspectors. The alternative is mine operators may be forced to replace all those seals with their predecessor, concrete seals capable of withstanding 100 psi-explosions.
NIOSH is working on a solution and recent tests on a material called BlastSeal show promise, but Kohler says more research is needed.
The first test, done this year, subjected alternative seals to pressures ranging from 57 psi to 61 psi, said Guner Gurtunda, director of NIOSH's Pittsburgh research laboratory. ``They survived.'' A second test at much higher pressure destroyed the seals.
``The next step is very important. We've got 14,000 seals out there. We need to come up with viable alternatives,'' Kohler said.
NIOSH plans more formal tests on several reinforcement concepts that Kohler says may have merit.
``I think a year is the time frame,'' Kohler said. ``We're certainly not talking three year or five years ... Realistically, within a year, enough will be known to deal with many of the existing seals.''