U.S. Coal Mines Slow to Deploy Real-Time Dust Meters

April 3, 2012

Some U.S. coal operators are quietly embracing a device that monitors the levels of explosive coal dust in their mines in real time, rather than waiting for the results of lab tests.

The Sunday Gazette-Mail says the devices are available commercially, and both Pennsylvania-based Consol Energy and St. Louis-based Patriot Coal are using them.

But Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, said most operators probably won’t follow their lead unless ordered to do so by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration or Congress.

The latter seems unlikely: Three separate mine safety bills introduced after the April 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster remain stalled in Congress as the second anniversary approaches Thursday.

MSHA’s most recent budget proposal indicated it “may engage in regulatory actions,” but the agency hasn’t formally announced any plans to require the devices.

Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources agreed to install them as part of a $210 million agreement reached in December with the U.S. Department of Justice over Upper Big Branch. The blast at the former Massey Energy mine in southern West Virginia killed 29 men and was the worst U.S. mine disaster in four decades.

After the federal settlement was announced, MSHA released a final report that detailed 369 safety violations, including 12 it said contributed to the explosion.

The report confirmed what the agency and other investigators said previously: Massey let highly explosive methane gas and coal dust build up, and worn and broken cutting equipment created the spark that ignited the fuel. Broken and clogged water sprayers then allowed what could have been a minor flare-up to turn into an inferno that ripped through miles of underground tunnels.

The federal settlement consists of $46.5 million in restitution to the miners’ families, $128 million for safety improvements, research and training, and $35 million in fines for safety violations at Upper Big Branch and other Massey mines.

Alpha agreed to invest $48 million in a mine-safety research trust and spend an additional $80 million to improve safety at all of its mines with the latest technology.

Jeff Kohler, mining research director for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, testified in a congressional hearing last week that explosibility meters became commercially available in June 2011 after what he called “extensive in-mine testing.”

Former MSHA chief and special investigator J. Davitt McAteer said in a May 2011 report on Upper Big Branch that NIOSH and industry spent too long testing the instruments and urged the government to deploy them.

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