Mine Disaster Drills Address Safety, Family and Media

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HOLMES MILL, Ky. (AP) -- Rescue drills have always been a major part of mine safety. But the nation's high-profile disasters over the past two years have forced the industry to practice in another area: dealing with victims' families and the media.

A mock disaster drill Wednesday at an eastern Kentucky coal mine had nearly 100 federal and state officials, miners and personnel role-playing as first-responders and investigators, as well as panicked family members and reporters.

The daylong scenario depicted a mine fire that left a dozen miners trapped.

"It's in response to the disasters over the past (few) years," said Thurmond Holcomb, president and general manager of Lone Mountain Processing Company, which held the mock disaster at its Clover Fork mine in Holmes Mill.

The company is a subsidiary of Arch Coal, one of the nation's largest coal producers with operations in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. The company hasn't had a multiple-fatality disaster in more than a decade, said spokesman John Snider.

But the mock disaster was held less than a mile from the Kentucky Darby mine, which lost five men to an underground explosion in May 2006.

Those deaths, plus the 12 at West Virginia's Sago mine last year and the recent cave-ins that killed nine in Utah, all drew criticism from lawmakers, union representatives and industry officials on how victims' relatives were treated and how well information was released to the public.

Safety advocates and industry experts said making family and media relations a part of disaster drills was necessary.

"It's a trend we're going to see more and more of," said Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association. "This is a way of showing that our responsibility extends beyond the life of the miners to the obligation to inform and comfort."

Tony Oppegard, a safety advocate who represented several widows from the Darby disaster, was a little more skeptical of the effort.

"I can see it being useful if it's being done with the right intentions," said Oppegard of incorporating family and media into disaster drills.

Both agreed that the recent Crandall Canyon disaster in Utah highlighted the need for proper communication with people outside the mine.

Family members of the victims said they struggled to get information about rescue efforts from co-owner Bob Murray and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. By law, that agency is supposed to control communications with the families.

At times, Murray dominated news conferences with the agency's chief, Richard Stickler. He also insisted the collapse was caused by an earthquake, despite contrary evidence.

Stickler has said he could not keep Murray from speaking and could not control Murray's behavior off mine property.

The whole thing left the coal industry cringing.

"Crandall Canyon focused additional attention on the need not only to help the miners but the families who are anxiously awaiting information," Popovich said.

Coal mines perform mandatory quarterly drills, but they only address specific issues, such as exit strategy, and don't go into the myriad of issues explored by voluntary drills, such as Lone Mountain's.

The mock disaster was filled with plot twists, with only the four people knowing the details. Smoke blew through the mine, workers went missing, relatives had heart attacks and media tried to sneak into the family headquarters.

It gave the workers a chance to test a new refuge chamber, extra emergency air packs and a two-way communications system -- post-Sago upgrades now required by law.

The fake tragedy also gave Arch's family liaisons a new perspective on what families go through when they wait hours to learn the fate of their loved ones.

"I wanted more information, I was upset," said Rachael May, a Lone Mountain employee who acted as a mother of two whose husband was trapped underground. "It completely changed the way I view it."

Johnny Greene, director of the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing, was on site to observe the drill.

"We all strive for this never to happen," he said. "You plan for the worse, you try to prepare. This as close as it gets to real life."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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