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MSHA delays 'proximity detection' rule

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration announced plans Monday to further delay a requirement for underground coal-mine operators to equip mining machines with devices meant to protect miners from being run over or crushed by those machines.

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials had already delayed an "emergency" rule planned for March 2011. Agency officials now say they won't issue an emergency rule at all, and will instead issue a regular rule, which takes longer.

In a news release, MSHA officials cited as their reason President Obama's January executive order to avoid regulations "that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive."

"MSHA is proposing a rule instead of issuing a scheduled emergency temporary standard to provide opportunity for public participation prior to implementation," the agency said in its news release.

A proposed rule will be published Wednesday, with public comment accepted through mid-November. No deadline was set for issuing a final rule.

The rule in question would require mine operators to install "proximity detection" systems to shut off remote-controlled underground mining machines when they get too close to miners.

Such a rule would strengthen protection of miners who work near continuous mining machines by reducing the potential for them to be run over by the machines or crushed between machines and mine walls.

Between 1984 and 2010, 30 miners died and 220 were injured when they became crushed, pinned or struck by these machines. Two such deaths occurred in 2010 and one, to date, in 2011, MSHA said.

"These fatalities and injuries could have been prevented by use of a proximity detection system," MSHA said.

Mines in South Africa already use proximity detection systems on continuous mining machines. To date, MSHA has approved three systems for use in the U.S., and those have been installed on at least 35 continuous mining machines.

"We know that the technology exists for proximity detection, some underground coal mine operators are already using it, and we know it saves lives," said Joe Main, assistant labor secretary in charge of MSHA.

MSHA added proximity devices to its regulatory agenda in May 2009, and later said it would issue an "emergency temporary standard" by March 2011. Under federal mine safety law, emergency standards can take effect immediately to protect miners from any "grave" threat while MSHA gathers public comment on a permanent rule.

Last month, MSHA said it would issue an emergency rule to require proximity devices for continuous mining machines and go through normal rulemaking for other underground mining equipment such as shuttle cars.

But MSHA altered its plan after a review by the White House Office of Management and Budget, and now MSHA will go through the regular rulemaking process on a proposal that would require proximity devices only for continuous mining machines.

National Mining Association officials had urged MSHA to conduct a "thorough examination of the operational readiness" of proximity detection system before requiring them.

"Unfortunately, the development of technology to address the potential hazards of working proximity to mobile equipment in the underground environment has not advanced as quickly as anticipated," association lobbyist Bruce Watzman said in a letter to MSHA. "Today, we have a situation where only a handful of mines have had operational experience with the approved systems and even fewer have examined the application of this technology in their individual mine settings."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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