West Virginia Officials Rip Proposed Shelter Regulations

August 5, 2008

Officials in West Virginia, the country’s largest underground coal-producing state, lashed out against proposed federal regulations that would mandate airtight emergency refuges in more than 600 underground coal mines nationally.

Officials who helped craft West Virginia’s own refuge rules criticized pieces of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s own proposal at a hearing in Charleston.

“I believe MSHA has missed the point,” said Jim Dean, former interim director of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training. “MSHA seems to be more interested in protecting the shelter than protecting the miner.”

Dean said on July 31 West Virginia spent “tremendous time and effort” tapping the expertise of miners, mine operators, mine safety experts and others in developing its regulations, only to have MSHA draft unnecessarily conflicting rules.

MSHA’s proposal would require chambers that are too large, too close together and stocked with too many supplies, said Dean, who accused the agency of being more concerned about comfort than keeping miners alive.

MSHA’s proposal would allow mine operators to store building materials underground, build airtight rooms or place prefabricated refuges — like those required by West Virginia — in mines. All would have to provide enough air, water and other necessities to keep trapped miners alive for at least four days while they await rescue.

The proposal is required by federal legislation passed after high-profile accidents in 2006 that killed 19 miners, including 12 who died of carbon monoxide poisoning after being trapped by a methane gas explosion at West Virginia’s Sago Mine. MSHA hopes to issue final rules by the end of 2008.

Dean and Randy Harris, an engineering adviser for Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, also sought assurances that shelters already in place would not become obsolete once federal regulations take effect.

About 185 of 339 state-approved refuge chambers for the state’s 150 underground mines already have been installed, Miners’ Health, Safety and Training Director Ron Wooten said.

MSHA intends to accept state-approved chambers for now, but once the new rules are in place, “all bets are off,” said Patricia W. Silvey, acting director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Standards, Regulations, and Variances.

MSHA’s proposal also would let mines keep using state-approved chambers and MSHA-approved breathable air supplies for up to 10 years. West Virginia mines then would have to install MSHA-approved chambers.

MSHA estimates the rule would affect about 42,200 people who work in approximately 624 underground mines across the country. The agency estimates the rule would cost mine operators between $84.1 million and $102.6 million in the first year and between $38.7 million and $43.3 million annually after that.

Public hearings on the proposal are scheduled later this summer in Lexington, Ky., and Birmingham, Ala.

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