Federal Regulators Taking New Steps to Identify Most Dangerous Mines

September 30, 2010

Federal regulators have implemented new measures for identifying the nation’s most dangerous mines, replacing what U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis had called a “badly broken” process.

The Mine Health and Safety Administration said the screening criteria give the agency more enforcement backbone at mines with a history of violating safety standards. The change is designed to identify mines that have been subject to closure orders, including those where compliance has not been sufficiently improved.

“We have known for some time that the current system is broken and needs to be fixed,” said MSHA director Joe Main. “This new screening process improves upon the old one, which cast too broad a net and did not distinguish mines with the highest levels of elevated enforcement.

“This new system will let MSHA focus its attention on those mines that are putting miners at greatest risk.”

The process fell under scrutiny following an April explosion that killed 29 at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine, owner by Massey Energy. A computer error had allowed the mine to evade the screening process.

The Labor Department inspector general’s office had said that between 2007 and 2009, MSHA removed 21 mines from the screening process meant to flag those showing a “pattern of violations” of safety and health rules.

Both Solis’ office and congressional Democrats had slammed the screening process, developed in 2007, as a flawed product of the prior administration.

A spokesman for Virginia-based Massey didn’t immediately return a telephone message Monday.

The new criteria use health and safety data from the most recent 12-month period available to determine if a potential pattern of violations exists. While it can’t correct issues that require legislation or changes to existing regulations, “this is a stopgap measure until reform can occur,” Main said.

“We are aggressively pursuing both regulatory and legislative reforms, but in the meantime this new policy improves our ability to identify problem mines.”

Also Monday, West Virginia’s mine safety chief said the state will hire eight people and create a laboratory to test whether underground coal mine operators are complying with regulations designed to prevent explosions.

At least some of the people will be hired and undergo training by the end of October, said Ron Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training. The operation should be up and running by mid-November, Wooten said. “I want to have it up and going even if we don’t have all the people.”

The testing program is part of the state’s response to the Upper Big Branch explosion. The blast was the deadliest at a U.S. coal mine since 1970 and investigators suspect dust contributed to the explosion.

Gov. Joe Manchin ordered Wooten’s agency to start testing coal dust just days after the explosion. The governor also ordered mines to increase the amount of pulverized stone or other inert material they use to dilute coal dust in air intake tunnels to 80 percent, the same amount already required in return tunnels. Currently intakes need just 65 percent.

Wooten defended the seven-month lag since Manchin’s order, noting that it took more than two years to create additional mine rescue teams mandated after the deadly Sago Mine explosion and Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine fire in 2006.

“We have been doing everything we can,” Wooten said. “We’re starting from scratch.”

The state mine office diverted funds for the dust sampling program until lawmakers approved $411,000 in funding during a special legislative session in July, Wooten said. The money includes the new positions, which Wooten said are intended to prevent adding duties to jobs already done by state mine inspectors.

Last Tuesday, MSHA announced an emergency rule adopting the 80 percent standard as well. West Virginia, however, won’t begin holding its 172 underground mines to the higher standard pending action by the Legislature or the West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety. Wooten said the state Attorney General’s office has determined that Manchin’s executive order doesn’t make the new standard enforceable.

Associated Press Writer John Raby in Charleston contributed to this report.

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