A Congressional committee was told last week, that if coal miners were trapped deep underground by an explosion today, they would most likely suffer the same fate as the Sago miners over a year ago.

Safety advocates told a US Senate committee that coal operators have made some improvements, but still haven't provided enough emergency oxygen, improved communications gear or adequate rescue.

"If we had an accident today, we would still be stuck in the same situation we were in before," said Davitt McAteer, a former top mine safety regulator and adviser to Gov. Joe Manchin.

"What would happen tomorrow morning in the nation's coal mines if we had a similar explosion, God forbid, that we did on January 2, 2006? The truth is we would have the same kinds of problems," said UMW president Cecil Roberts.

Richard Stickler, assistant labor secretary in charge of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, faced tough questioning over MSHA's implementation of a new mine safety law passed after the Sago.

"Mr. Stickler, you're on the spot," Sen. Alen Specter said.

Ken Ward, Jr. of the Charleston Gazette said that Specter demanded to know why MSHA had not required mine operators to install newer, fire-proof conveyor belts, especially after two miners died in a belt fire at the Aracoma Mine last year.

Stickler first said federal law does not require the improved belt materials, then that he was waiting for the results of a study of the issue, and then that it would take a new MSHA rule to force the industry's hand.

Specter, angrily responded by saying, "First I hear about a rule change, then I hear about a study...It seems to me that it ought to be done. These more flammable belts could cause an accident at any time."

Bruce Watzman, a lobbyist for the National Mining Association, said the coal industry has spent or expects to spend nearly $160 million on safety improvements in 2006 and 2007.

About $65 million of that money is for 90,000 additional self-contained, self-rescuers to give miners additional air packs.

The two largest manufacturers have a backlog of more than 10 months to fill new orders, while other suppliers have the units for sale in their warehouse.