Judge Orders Tougher Mine Safety Rules for Rescue Teams

February 13, 2009

A judge has ordered the federal agency that regulates coal mining to strengthen rules designed to make the nation’s 38,000 underground coal miners safer by creating better-trained rescue teams.

U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Judge Stephen Williams ordered the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to reconsider rescue team rules covering small coal mines. Current rules allow teams at mines with fewer than 36 employees to train just once a year.

Williams ruled that violates a federal law passed after the deaths of 12 West Virginia coal miners following a January 2006 methane gas explosion and two other high-profile underground mining accidents that killed seven workers in West Virginia and Kentucky later that year.

Williams also ordered MSHA to eliminate a rule allowing teams of state mine inspectors to substitute work for rescue practice.

MSHA said it will make the necessary changes, which will require state employee teams to train twice a year at small mines and participate in two contests for mine rescue teams, the agency said in a statement. Teams at small mines will be required to train twice a year as well, MSHA said.

United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, whose labor union challenged the rules in court, praised the ruling.

“MSHA attempted to water down the requirement that mine rescue teams train at least twice a year, but the court said no,” Roberts said in a statement. “Coal miners and our families have learned the hard way that well-trained mine rescue teams, responding immediately to incidents in the mines, can save lives.”

It’s unclear how much the added requirement might cost the nation’s 600-plus underground coal mines.

A National Mining Association spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Williams did uphold several other portions of the regulations, including a provision that allows training exercises to be substituted for rescue contests.

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