West Virginia Coal Dust Standards Not Enforced

State standards aimed at reducing buildups of explosive coal dust in underground mines but regulators haven’t been enforced.

More than a fifth of the more than 5,500 dust samples taken from mines by state regulators since August 2011 didn’t comply with the standards. But the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training hasn’t issued any citations, the Charleston Gazette reported.

“We have not cited any of these samples as of this date,” Eugene White, the state’s new mine safety director, told the newspaper. “This is still a work in progress. We’re working on it.”

“We learned a lesson at Upper Big Branch,” White said. “In my opinion, the mines are white today,” referring to a layer of rock-dust being visible on top of black coal dust underground.

Mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer said the standards don’t mean anything if there are no consequences for failing to comply.

“It’s a charade,” said McAteer, who led an independent team appointed by then-Gov. Joe Manchin to investigate the 2010 explosion that killed 29 workers at the Upper Big Branch Mine. “They are going through some motions, but nothing has happened.

“This dust issue was absolutely the most critical failure at the Upper Big Branch Mine and three years later, there’s still not a prevention measure in place to keep it from occurring again.”

Dennis O’Dell, safety director for the United Mine Workers, said the state “has been dragging its feet too long.”

“Someone needs to move forward with this,” O’Dell said. “If the state is finding violations and they are not issuing citations, then shame on them. Why even do it if you’re not going to use it as an enforcement tool?”

The standards require mine operators to use more inert crushed rock, a practice known as rock dusting, to control the buildup of coal dust. Manchin mandated the standards in an executive order issued nine days after the Upper Big Branch explosion, which was the worst U.S. coal mine disaster in four decades. They later were included in mine safety legislation passed by the Legislature.

Chris Hamilton, vice president for the West Virginia Coal Association, said the industry is doing more rock dusting than it ever has.

“The industry has learned some things over the past couple of years. It’s just one of those areas where the industry has returned back to basics,” he said.

Hamilton said he embraces the state’s dust-sampling efforts and believes there is “a sound, rational basis” for citations not yet being issued when there are violations.

“This isn’t all about being confrontational or heavy-handed,” he said.

Randy Harris, a consultant to the mine safety agency, said operators are being notified of the sample results. He said state officials are pushing mine operators to address any dust-control problems.

“We’ve been harassing them to death,” Harris said.

Last September, the agency withdrew a rule that focused on rock dusting. The decision followed a letter from a Coal Mine Health and Safety Board member raising concerns about the provisions.

Agency lawyer Jack Rife said state officials want the rule to be in place before enforcement actions are taken. He said it will help state lawyers defend citations when coal companies appeal them.