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W.Va. stalls rule on mine 'proximity detection' safety rule

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia officials have never acted on a five-year-old recommendation to adopt a rule that could end one of the most common type of coal-mining accidents: being crushed by a piece of underground equipment.

In September 2008, a team of state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training inspectors recommended the state require all underground mine operators to install "proximity detection" systems to shut off mining equipment when it gets too close to workers.

Officials have never adopted such a rule. Some mine operators are adding the systems on their own. State inspectors sometimes mandate proximity detection equipment as an additional safety measure -- but only after miners are killed.

"It's a shame we have to wait until we have a fatality," said state mine safety director Eugene White, "but that's the only avenue we have to require them."

Between 1984 and 2010, 30 miners died and 220 were injured nationwide when they became crushed, pinned or struck by continuous mining machines underground. Mine safety experts say these deaths and injuries could be prevented if mine operators installed proximity detection devices.

On the federal level, two separate U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration rules to require proximity detection systems remain stalled, one at MSHA and the other at the White House.

MSHA chief Joe Main has touted the fact that some mine operators -- led by CONSOL Energy and Alliance Coal -- are installing proximity detectors without a legal mandate to do so. But the voluntary measures cover only about one-fourth of the continuous mining machines in use around the country, according to MSHA.

In West Virginia, state mine safety officials at one point planned to move to require proximity detection systems ahead of any federal mandate.

Back in June 2008, the state's Mine Safety Technology Task Force planned to have a draft regulation ready by January 2009 so it could become effective by June 2009, according to meeting minutes and other records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

"The task force would like to come up with a regulation before federal requirements are proposed on proximity devices," said the minutes, from a June 18-19 meeting in Charleston.

Three months later, in a Sept. 7, 2008, memo, four top state mine inspectors recommended specific language that would have given mine operators a year to install proximity detection systems.

"It is our belief that the use of a device, such as the proximity warning system, will be necessary if we are to ever eliminate injuries of this type," the memo said.

While questions remained about such equipment, the memo said, a legal mandate would push industry and academia to improve the technology to respond to a new market.

"The committee is aware that, although there are devices available on the market today, that work is still necessary in order to have a workable solution to this issue," the memo said. "However, it is also the belief of this committee that mandating this device through regulation will bring forth greater efforts in research and development when a known market is available."

The task force, charged with reviewing new mining technologies and recommending them to state regulators and the industry, never issued a formal recommendation on proximity device requirements.

White noted that the panel, made up of industry and labor members, has continued to discuss the issue, visit mines that are using the devices, and evaluate the various technologies on the market.

Earlier this year, at an April meeting in Flatwoods, the task force asked its administrator, Joel Watts, to draw up a new draft of a proximity detection systems rule. Watts did so, but the task force has never voted to recommend the rule to the mine safety office or the state's Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety.

Last week, the issue came up again when the mine safety board's members heard a report on the Feb. 19 death of John Myles at Metinvest's Affinity Mine in Raleigh County. Myles, 44, of Hilltop, was hit by a mining "scoop" vehicle as he worked shoveling coal debris away from the mine walls at the underground operation.

In a previous report, MSHA had concluded one cause of the accident was that the scoop "was allowed to operate with supplies and other extraneous materials positioned on top of the machine," which "caused limited visibility" for the miner operating the vehicle.

State investigators disagreed, saying that the scoop's batteries alone were so tall that they blocked the driver's view, regardless of whether supplies were piled on top of it.

Both MSHA and the state took steps that now require the company to use either proximity detection devices or cameras to avoid future such accidents.

McKennis Browning, an inspector at large for the state mine safety office, told board members that proximity detection systems or cameras might have prevented Myles being killed. A requirement for workers to wear highly visible strobe lights in underground mines might also have helped, Browning told the board last week.

But Browning said that, without a rule on those issues, state inspectors are only able to step in and require such equipment as a mine operator's response to a death or serious injury.

"We don't have anything to do with proximity devices," Browning said. "We don't have anything to do with strobe lights. I think that's something we need to look at." Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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