Thursday, July 20, 2006


...on at least one issue. Here's a story from today's New York Times on the Sago mine disaster:

The 12 miners who died in the Sago Mine in West Virginia in January would have survived an explosion in an abandoned section of the mine if the seals cordoning off that area had been properly installed, state mining officials concluded in a report released yesterday....

Under current rules, the seals are supposed to withstand explosions exerting 20 pounds of pressure per square inch....

... physical evidence showed that the force of the explosion exceeded 20 pounds per square inch.

Federal mine safety officials said yesterday that they would begin requiring mines to use new alternative seals that could withstand 50 pounds of pressure per square inch....

Sago was horrible, but it's a good thing the standards are being modernized, right? Well, yes -- but "modernized" isn't exactly the right word.

Last May, West Virginia's Charleston Gazette looked at a 1971 U.S. government study, which in turn looked at how this issue had been dealt with in the U.S. and other countries in previous years. Among other things, the Gazette found this:

In Poland and Germany, [a] 1921 study said, the standard for seal construction [was] 72 pounds per square inch.


...the United Kingdom determined that the 50 psi standard "gives a good margin of safety in practice" after studies of disasters there in 1933 and 1960.

And a tougher standard was partly implemented here in the U.S. decades ago:

The 1921 study also notes that the government set a 50-pounds-per-square-inch requirement on seals in mines located on federal lands. That regulation, the study said, "was based on the general opinion of men experienced in mine explosion investigations."

But the business of America is business, dammit, and we couldn't possibly have a standard like that for mines on private land.

So what we got instead was the 20-pounds-per-square-inch standard. It became law in 1992. And it was inadequate to prevent the deaths of twelve miners in 2006.

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