Ky. Miner, Widows Ask Administration to Make Seal Rule Permanent

July 16, 2007

The seals in the underground Kentucky mine were supposed to block explosive gases, but they are weak, cracked, damaged – allowing water to gush through them.

The disturbing images on the home movie were presented last week by an eastern Kentucky coal miner to a federal panel hearing testimony on a rule requiring stronger seals for abandoned sections of underground coal mines.

Charles Scott Howard, a coal miner in Letcher County, filmed the leaky seals in April at the underground mine he works in. The seals are “supposed to protect everyone in the mine from whatever is behind them,” Howard said, urging the panel to strengthen the temporary rule announced in May and make it a permanent one.

About 372 of the nation’s 670 underground coal mines seal abandoned areas and those mines employ more than 70 percent of the nation’s 42,700 underground miners, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The new rule requires mine operators to replace current seals with stronger ones, to monitor the atmosphere behind them for explosive gases and, in some cases, to evacuate miners.

It was prompted by the deaths of 17 Kentucky and West Virginia miners killed last year by methane explosions. Both the Kentucky Darby and Sago Mine blasts occurred in abandoned, sealed mine sections.

Howard was joined by mine widows and safety advocates in encouraging MSHA to finalize the rule. They also suggested strengthening certain portions of it.

“Don’t back down,” pleaded Priscilla Petra, a widow of one of five eastern Kentucky miners killed in the Darby blast in May 2006. “MSHA is finally beginning to realize that the system has failed miners.”

The Darby explosion was ignited by two miners – Jimmy Lee and shift foreman Amon ‘”Cotton” Brock – as they used an open torch near an abandoned section of mine that was supposed to be sealed but was leaking methane. The seal was poorly constructed and failed to meet federal guidelines, according to investigators.

Mining industry executives have complained about the cost of stronger seals and certain stipulations in the rule, including the prohibition on cutting and welding within 150 feet of seals. They also disagree with MSHA’s conclusion that explosive concentrations of gas behind seals poses imminent danger to miners.

MSHA estimates it will cost the industry $39.7 million a year to meet the new requirements. That comes atop an estimated $128 million for complying with a sweeping federal safety law passed last year and another $50 million for West Virginia’s 254 underground mines to purchase airtight emergency shelters.

“We oppose the replacement of existing seals,” said Kentucky Coal Association Bill Caylor, adding that changing the seals is a dangerous, impractical job.

He discouraged MSHA from taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach to improving safety, saying replacing seals isn’t necessary in all mines.

The rule requires seals capable of withstanding blast pressures of at least 50 pounds per square inch, if mine operators make sure the atmosphere behind those seals remains nonexplosive. Mines could avoid monitoring by building seals to withstand 120 psi. And mines at risk of more powerful explosions would need even stronger seals.

The MSHA hearing in Lexington was the second of four. A session was held in Morgantown, W.Va., on July 10 and sessions were planned for July 17 in Denver and July 19 in Birmingham, Ala.

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