Mining safety: Canadian technology may lessen coal mining's dangers

A Canadian gas-monitoring company capitalizes on the resurgence of coal.

The explosion that led to the deaths of 12 West Virginia miners on Jan. 2 is a chilling reminder of how dangerous digging for coal can be. It also highlights the importance of equipment that monitors levels of methane and carbon monoxide to prevent similar disasters.

Formerly, a canary was used for this purpose: its untimely death in the mine shaft warned miners that odourless carbon monoxide gases were at dangerous levels. Now, a private Canadian company, Conspec Controls Ltd., is fast becoming a key manufacturer of sophisticated mine monitoring equipment–the high-tech version of the canary. The firm's technology allows mine operators to link myriad devices to monitor gases and control mining equipment, as well as radio equipment, to allow communication between miners underground and the world above.

According to company president Enzo Ucci, Burlington, Ont.-based Conspec, which brings in annual revenue of about US$7 million, has close to an 80% share of the market for monitoring equipment in coal mines in the western United States, and about half of the market in the eastern part of the country. Conspec also has a 35% share of monitoring equipment used in Australia's coal mines. (In Canada, about 95% of coal production comes from surface mines.) The company, founded in 1968, is now set on growing its business in China, the world's largest coal miner, with more than 10,000 high-output mines in operation and thousands of gas-related casualties each year. In 2000, Conspec invested in a wholly owned subsidiary strategically placed in Beijing to be close to major coal mine markets. The factory has been operational since 2001, and its equipment is now used in more than 50 of China's larger mines.

Coal mining has always been a dangerous business. A byproduct of the natural forces that create coal, methane gas in high concentrations can not only result in an explosion, but can also lead to a buildup of carbon monoxide, which causes victims to “fall asleep” as the oxygen around them is depleted. That appears to be what happened to the dozen men at the Sago mine in Tallmansville, W.Va. While only an investigation will uncover what happened there, and whether faulty monitors may have played a role, Ucci says there is “no doubt” in his mind that proper monitoring and workplace procedures are key components in digging for coal safely. Conspec vice-president Rob Albinger, who heads U.S. operations, adds the disaster at Sago will increase demand for location-tracking devices to rescue people more quickly.

Coal mining monitors must meet strict guidelines of the jurisdictions where they operate. As a result, there aren't as many manufacturers of such equipment as you might think, Ucci says. (Conspec has about five competitors in the U.S.) Conspec equipment is typically found in larger mines and is priced somewhat higher than its rivals', because it's often customized. But Albinger says Conspec has a reputation for reliability and accuracy, and its equipment is designed to become a part of a coal mine's regular maintenance procedures.

Despite environmental concerns about coal, it's increasingly being seen as a viable energy source thanks to efforts to make it burn more efficiently and cleanly. And with more interest from China in improving its mining safety record, demand for gas monitors will likely increase. Ucci hopes the wider use of Conspec's products will help prevent disasters such as the one in West Virginia.