Pennsylvania mine-safety chief Joe Sbaffoni is almost afraid to talk of it for fear of a jinx, but, barring last-minute misfortune, the state is on track to have its first year without a known mine fatality.
Records have been kept since the late 19th century. Sbaffoni, director of the state Bureau of Mine Safety, said 2010 could end with a clean record. Nationally, 49 people have died this year in mine-related accidents, including the catastrophic blast at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 men, the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years.
The announcement came during a panel discussion at Allegheny General Hospital on the treatment of mining injuries. Panelists included doctors who treated Randal McCloy, the lone survivor of the 2006 mine explosion in Sago, W.Va., as well as members of various mine rescue and medical groups.
"So far this year, we haven't had any fatalities in any of our mining areas - both surface, underground coal, metal, and nonmetal," Sbaffoni said. "It's a testament to the efforts of everybody involved in the industry."
Pennsylvania is the nation's fourth-largest producer of coal, both bituminous and anthracite.
Sbaffoni's announcement followed a presentation and question-and-answer period during which the topic of the April 5 blast at Upper Big Branch was raised.
In unusually blunt language, Sbaffoni declared that such an accident should not happen.
"Sometimes the answer's not more regulations. Sometimes the answer is to enforce the regulations that you have on the books," he said.
Later, he said he was not passing judgment on the case, which remains the subject of a joint state-federal investigation as well as of a criminal grand-jury probe.
"Something had to go awful wrong down there," he said. "I don't believe it should happen today."
Pennsylvania's last major mine catastrophe was in 1962, when 37 miners died after a huge explosion at the Robena Mine in Carmichaels.
Wednesday's forum, attended by approximately 40 people, mostly medical personnel, provided additional insights into the treatment of McCloy.
He was found unconscious and suffering from carbon-monoxide poisoning. Doctors at West Virginia University's Ruby Medical Center initially treated him, then had him transferred to Allegheny General Hospital for treatment in a bariatric pressure chamber, a form of treatment that had been successful on patients treated within hours of their injuries.
McCloy had been underground for 41 hours - a prospect that did not bode well for his recovery.
Julian Bailes, head of neurosurgery at WVU's school of medicine, said McCloy's treatment included large doses of omega fatty acids, an attempt to restore lost brain function.
"The concept was to give him what his brain was made of when he was an embryo," Bailes said. "I had no real strategy other than to try to rebuild his brain."
With the combination of oxygen treatment at Allegheny General Hospital and the fatty acids, McCloy made a substantial recovery.