Coal Industry Blasts New Federal Mine Safety Rules

By Tim Huber | June 9, 2011

Coal industry officials this week roundly criticized two sets of new safety rules proposed by federal regulators following an explosion that killed 29 West Virginia miners last year.

The West Virginia Coal Association and Alpha Natural Resources, the third-largest U.S. coal producer, urged the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to drop a proposal that would require mine operators to conduct more extensive safety examinations. Mine safety officials with the states of West Virginia and Illinois also told MSHA to drop the idea.

Only the United Mine Workers labor union testified in favor of both measures, which were developed after the April 5, 2010, explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia. Abingdon, Va.-based Alpha has since acquired the mine’s owner, Massey Energy.

The inspections proposal would require miners to find, fix and record serious regulatory violations while simultaneously conducting mandatory safety examinations to check for hazardous conditions such as elevated levels of explosive methane gas.

Specially certified miners conduct the examinations, but Coal Association lobbyist Chris Hamilton said they’re not trained to know federal regulations and shouldn’t be asked to perform the job of a federal inspector.

“There is a fine line that exists between a mere violation of law and something that constitutes an accident-producing situation,” Hamilton said. “Our underground mine foremen and mine examines are trained to look out for hazards, real life conditions.”

John Gallick, Alpha’s vice president of safety, said the rule would place unrealistic burdens on mine examiners and exposes them to MSHA citations if they miss violations, which often are open to interpretation.

“It is difficult enough to a good mine examiner. Now it may become impossible,” he said. “The current proposed rule detracts from the purpose of conducting exams.”

MSHA official Pat Silvey defended the proposal. “This would prevent some accidents because mine operators would be required to take actions earlier, before a hazardous condition develops,” she said.

UMW International Representative Jerry Kerns II said the change would improve safety by eliminating judgment calls on whether a condition is hazardous.

“The current rule simply requires the mine examiner to look for hazards,” Kerns said. “The proposal should result in a more thorough mine exam.”

The union also generally supports MSHA’s proposal to change the way it identifies mines that demonstrate a pattern of serious violations. International Representative Brian Lacy suggested MSHA create more concrete criteria through the normal process of soliciting public comment. The agency has proposed periodic, informal revisions.

The coal industry, however, panned the proposal, arguing that MSHA’s plan to make decisions based on citations for violations that haven’t been finalized would be unconstitutional.

“MSHA’s proposed rule, in our view, clearly violates mine operators’ due process rights and principles of fundamental fairness,” Hamilton said.

The union supports the agency’s proposal to use citations that can still be appealed.

“It can take years to resolve a contested citation,” Lacy said. “Conditions at the mine may bear no resemblance to what they were when the citation was originally issued.”

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