The president of a Lester-based company is scheduled to demonstrate his new mine emergency shelter at a news conference one block from the U.S. Capitol this morning, a prelude to testimony by a representative for the Mine Safety and Health Administration before the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor.

Leonard Urtso, president of A.L. Lee Corp., was en route to the nation’s capital Tuesday morning as he described the phone call he received a couple of weeks ago from an aide of Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., seeking Urtso’s presence.

“We look at it as quite a compliment (to be invited to demonstrate the shelter). I think (the purpose of the conference) is to be able to show that, after the Sago catastrophe, Congress has a responsibility to recognize that mining conditions must be improved,” declared Urtso.

“Once they put their mind to it, the technology is there to be adapted to underground mining. The No. 1 goal is to reduce accidents, but life shelters and rescue chambers are second choices. An attempt to evacuate the mine must come first. If that fails and there’s no way out, they (miners) will go to the rescue chamber.”

Urtso’s shelter is said to provide 20 to 30 miners with 96 hours of breathable air and expands to its full size — 25 feet by 12 feet and 4 feet high — in less than three minutes.

“Think of it as a very sophisticated tent,” he said, of the 6-ton device that can withstand 15 pounds per square inch of blast force.

With assistance from his son and others, Urtso will demonstrate how the shelter operates at a news conference on New Jersey Avenue initiated by Rep. Miller.

The press event will begin at 9 a.m. and last until 10:15 — timed to precede testimony by a spokesperson for MSHA at 10:30 before the committee that Miller chairs. The focus of today’s hearing is “evaluating the effectiveness of MSHA’s mine safety and health programs.”

“My staff and I have been invited to attend that hearing, and (Miller) will likely show some of the videotape that he shoots (of the shelter demonstration) at the hearing,” Urtso added.

“All members of the U.S. House and Senate have been invited to the news conference. I feel like (West Virginia Congressman Nick) Rahall will be there and perhaps (Sen. Jay) Rockefeller. He (Miller) did say that the media will be there and asked if I would be available to provide specifics (on the shelter).”

At this point, Urtso’s is the only West Virginia-based company to be certified to build the shelters. “We have significant orders in house right now. I expect those to double, if not triple, in the next few weeks. There is a $50 million market in West Virginia for the shelters right now. We have, truly, the best system out there right now.”

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Earlier this year, MSHA ordered all underground mines to provide enough breathable air for trapped miners to survive at least four days, though MSHA is only studying shelters at this point.

The requirements are part of sweeping mine safety laws passed after 12 miners died following an explosion at International Coal Group’s Sago Mine and two others were unable to escape a conveyer belt fire at a Massey Energy mine in January 2006.

The revolutionary patent-pending “LifeShelter” is a joint effort by A.L. Lee and ChemBio Shelter Inc. of Allentown, Pa.

— E-mail: mhill@register-herald.com

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