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Tomblin mine safety rules delayed again

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Members of West Virginia's mine safety board declined to take action again on Thursday to implement tougher methane-monitoring requirements for underground coal mines, further delaying a key provision of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's mine safety legislation.

Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety members said they hoped to look at a draft of the rules at their March meeting, and then determine how quickly they can issue a proposed rule for public comment.

Members have been unable to reach agreement on a key definition for the rules, but appear to have settled on language that would give the coal industry at least three years to comply with the new monitoring requirements.

The rules at issue are needed to implement the legislation's mandate to tighten the state's requirement for mining equipment to be automatically shut off when the explosive gas methane is detected underground.

During a meeting Thursday afternoon in Charleston, board members discussed the rules again -- without mentioning that they were legally mandated to finalize the rules more than four months ago.

Board member Chris Hamilton, a lobbyist for the West Virginia Coal Association, said that the board should seek public comment on a variety of issues -- and discuss whether to add a provision to cite and fine any individual miners who violate the new standards.

"Let's at least take that first step," Hamilton said. "There will at least be some targets and deadlines to keep it moving."

At the former Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch Mine, a small methane ignition on April 5, 2010, grew into a huge coal-dust-fueled explosion that killed 29 miners, making it the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.

Coal operators are required to monitor underground mines for methane, which can explode when it is present at between 5 percent and 15 percent of the air.

Under federal rules, methane monitors are designed to automatically shut down underground mining equipment if the explosive gas is detected at concentrations of 2 percent or greater. The idea is that shutting down mining equipment removes a potential source of a spark that could ignite methane and cause a catastrophic explosion.

Initially, under legislation introduced last year by House Democratic leaders, coal-cutting devices on mining equipment would be required to automatically shut down when methane concentrations reached 1.25 percent.

During negotiations with coal industry and United Mine Workers union lobbyists, the language was re-written so that the automatic shutdown would occur only if methane concentrations reached 1.25 percent for a "sustained period." Lawmakers required the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety -- a panel of industry and labor representatives appointed by the governor -- to write rules to define the phrase "sustained period."

Board members have been unable to agree on a definition of "sustained period," and industry officials also said they discovered that all machine-mounted methane monitors would have to be redesigned and re-approved by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration before the new law could be implemented.

At Thursday's meeting, board members instructed board administrator Joel Watts to write up draft rules based on Thursday's discussion and present the language to the board at its March meeting.

However, records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act indicate Watts already provided identical language to board members before their October meeting -- in time to meet the legislative deadline -- only to have the board take no action.

"The board decided to delay any action on the methane rule," according to minutes of that Oct. 3, 2012, meeting.

The Tomblin administration's mine safety record is under increasing scrutiny, especially in the wake of four coal-mining deaths that occurred in the past month.

On Wednesday, following the latest of those deaths, the governor ordered all mine operators to hold one-time, one-hour safety talks with employees at the start of their next shift. No new inspections or enforcement initiatives were announced, and Tomblin said he sees no need for any additional mine safety legislation this session.

Echoing his previous remarks on the issue, Tomblin told reporters, "We've done everything that we possibly can to make sure that our miners are as safe as possible."

Along with delays in the methane-monitoring improvements, though, state regulators also have not begun enforcing tougher coal-dust control standards or increased fines that were other key provisions of the governor's mine safety legislation.

"Yes, after a slew of on-the-job fatalities in any industry, it is beneficial to take time to review safety standards to prevent further injury, but governor Tomblin's work doesn't stop there," said Tom O'Connor, a spokesman for the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

"What is really needed is for the Tomblin administration to take action on the critically important mining safety measures mandated by the 2012 legislation," O'Connor said. "What is not needed is further watering down of the rules under pressure from the mining industry.

"The rules are already overdue, and miners clearly are paying the price, as we have seen with the latest series of deaths."

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


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