The January 2, 2006 tragedy took the lives of 12 West Virginia coal miners trapped underground as a result of an explosion. Rescuers took 41 hours to reach the men, but found only one miner alive. The rest died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Radio communication and leaky feeder systems are commonplace in Canada’s hard rock mining industry, but much less so in the U.S., so Ontario is where communication system suppliers have congregated.
West Virginia’s 170 coal mines were required to submit plans to the Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training by July 31 detailing how and when they intend to acquire communication and tracking systems.
The federal government’s Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act will require an estimated 430 additional underground coal mines across the U.S. to follow suit by June 15, 2009.
Randall Harris, an engineering advisor to the director of the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training, oversees the certification of the required communication systems and has been working with Ontario-based suppliers to ensure compliance with the legislation.
“Our goal is to start approving installation plans by September and start ordering equipment,” he said.
Among the companies well-positioned to win a share of the business are Varis Mine Technology, Mine Radio Systems and Mine Site Technologies.
Sudbury-based Varis has been aggressively targeting the U.S. market for several years and claims to have sold a total of 60 systems across the country.
“The steps we took in 2003 and 2004 to get MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration) approval have really paid off,” said managing director Matt Ward. “Having done that work in advance of just about everyone else, we’re in a perfect position to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Bob Lavergne, a Sudbury-based technical sales manager for Mine Radio Systems, has been spending so much time in West Virginia that he jokes about checking out the real estate market for a second home.
“”We haven’t sold anything yet, but we’ve done a lot of quotations and we’re definitely a preferred supplier for a lot of mines,” he said. “We’re not only quoting systems, but also assisting them in writing up their plans for the state.”
Also vying for business is Australia-based Mine Site Technlogies, which serves the Canadian market from an office in Sudbury.
There are several different kinds of communication systems being proposed, but leaky feeder technology will probably emerge as the most popular solution.
Node-based, WiFi systems will appeal to mines that want to use their communication systems to transmit video and data in addition to voice, but the physical characteristics of Appalachian coal mines could make this a much more expensive way to go, said Harris.
“Because of the folding in the Appalachian ranges, the coal seams are very seldom flat, and when you look at the communication frequencies you have for WiFi, it’s pretty much line of sight.
“That’s real problematic because you’re looking at repeaters or nodes every 600 to 1,000 feet. If you’re talking about a mine where the working face is 25,000 feet from the portal, you’ve got a lot of devices and each one of those devices has to be intrinsically safe. That drives up the cost considerably.”
If the WiFi system components are not intrinsically safe on their own, they have to be housed in explosion-proof boxes, each of which can cost between $1,000 and $3,000, said Harris.
“With leaky feeder systems, there’s an amplifier every 1,500 to 1,800 feet and one power center every 6,000 to 8,000 feet, so even if they have to put them in explosion-proof boxes, there aren’t that many of them.”
Leaky feeder will be less expensive, but “you do lose some capabilities,” said Harris. In the end, it will be up to each mine to decide if the extra capability is worth the higher price tag.
Ward agrees that leaky feeder will emerge as the preferred choice.
“Fiber is great, but you can’t radiate off fiber. It’s point to point. You need a fiber-to-radio interface every 200 metres. Leaky feeder has been around a long time. The reason it’s successful is it’s simple and it works. It’s easy to install and maintain and it does what it says it does. It provides easy to use, push to talk communications throughout a mine with no dead spots.”
West Virginia mines will also incur considerable costs acquiring mobile emergency shelters, additional supplies of self-contained self-rescuers and lifelines (ropes with cone-shaped devices along the walls to guide miners in the direction of the portal when smoke fills the mine).
So they’re looking for a reasonably priced solution that will comply with the legislation, said Lavergne.
“Leaky feeder has a track record and a history behind it, so it’s definitely the preferred technology. Not that there’s anything wrong with fiber. It’s just new to the industry and the coal mines are saying ‘We want something that’s proven.’”
Both Mine Radio Systems and Varis also have hybrid Ethernet over Leaky Feeder (EoLF) systems that allow mines to take advantage of high-speed data, voice and video applications underground over a leaky feeder backbone.
The lack of MSHA approval may disqualify some emerging technologies in West Virginia because of the state’s decision to fast track deployment. However, longer lead times for the rest of the country’s mines may give suppliers the time they need to satisfy federal government standards for intrinsic safety and make a more convincing case for high bandwidth, fiber-based networking technologies.
Mine Site Technologies’ ImPact technology suite, a fiber-based solution developed and manufactured in Sudbury for the global market, is a case in point. Enabling video, on-board vehicle diagnostics, mobile data communications, production monitoring and all of the other applications that are taken for granted on surface, the technology promises to “meet the communication infrastructure and application requirements of mines in the 21st century.”
While wireless two-way voice communication is the norm in Canada, tracking technology is just beginning to catch on. Mine Site Technologies has a tracking system installed at CVRD-Inco’s McCreedy East Mine and Varis beta tested its SmartTag system at Xstrata Nickel’s Craig Mine, but in both cases, the technology was used to track equipment, not miners.
Communication system suppliers moving into the personnel and asset tracking space are beginning to make some headway in other markets.
Mine Site Technologies staff in Sudbury, for example, just completed the installation of a personnel and asset tracking system at a salt mine in upstate New York and the company is commissioning another system at a hard rock mine in Nevada, said Will Gove, general manager for Canada.
Mine Radio Systems has also had some success, winning orders for several personnel tracking systems for coal mines in Poland.
“Tracking can be done over leaky feeder, but it’s more difficult in our view,” said Gove.
“Straight leaky feeder companies would tell you otherwise. We do both, but if a client asked us to do tracking, we’d do it over an Ethernet WiFi network.”
Receivers attached to the leaky feeder or fiber network throughout the mine read RFID tags installed in a miner’s cap lamp and transit the data to a computer monitor on surface, allowing emergency personnel to pinpoint the location of miners underground in the event of an emergency.
Several other technologies, including proximity, or signal strength tracking, and inertial tracking, are also being developed, but most mines are expected to go with RFID systems.
Suppliers more familiar with Canada’s hard rock mining industry are in for a surprise when they have to start installing their leaky feeder or fiber systems, said Lavergne.
“We’re talking about mines that have a height of 36 inches. You’re basically lying on your back on what looks like a kid’s go-cart. We’re used to standing up and walking around or working on a scissor lift to install our equipment.”
There is no specific deadline for the installation of the required communication systems in West Virginia. The state’s Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training is working with its federal counterpart, MSHA, to accelerate the certification of supplier components as intrinsically safe and is reviewing mine plans.
“Our goal is to get everything installed as quickly as possible, but we recognize that supply is constrained for some of these components, so we want to make sure that we understand all that and that we don’t put companies in a position to meet a deadline they just can’t meet,” said Harris.
Whether suppliers will be able to cope with the deluge of business is still to be seen. Some are convinced that the deadlines can’t be met.
For now, suppliers are focusing most of their efforts on West Virginia, said Lavergne. “The rest of the U.S. is sitting back and waiting to see what’s going to happen, who the manufacturers are going to be and how well the systems work.”