Emergency Rules Expected To Fix Problems Found Following Sago

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Underground coal mines will be required
to take far stronger action to prevent future explosions like the
one that killed 12 men at the Sago Mine last year under emergency
rules issued Friday by the federal Mine Safety and Health
The rules, which take effect Tuesday, follow MSHA's conclusion
that lightning sparked methane gas in a sealed section of the West
Virginia mine.
Mine operators will be required to give up the long-standing
practice of sealing and forgetting abandoned sections of
underground mines. Companies will now be required to monitor such
areas for explosive gases and in some cases evacuate miners.
MSHA described the rules as an attempt to fix problems that led
to the Jan. 2, 2006, Sago explosion and a second blast that killed
five men at the Darby Mine No. 1 in Harlan County, Ky., last May
20. Both methane-gas explosions occurred in sealed areas that had
been abandoned.
The agency determined that lightning was the most likely cause
of the Sago explosion, while it blamed the use of a cutting torch
for the Darby blast.
"We have concluded that immediate action is necessary to
provide additional protections for our nation's underground coal
miners," said MSHA director Richard Stickler.
Friday's action marks only the fourth time in its
29-year-history that MSHA has invoked its emergency authority to
make immediate changes to how the nation's mining industry
operates. MSHA last issued emergency rules in March 2006 to require
mines to store additional emergency air packs underground and to
make other changes. Those changes were also prompted by the Sago
The emergency rule is based on the Sago and Darby
investigations, an evaluation of mine seals and a National
Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study, Stickler said.
NIOSH reported in February that methane gas explosions could
generate explosive forces up to 640 pounds per square inch. MSHA
concluded the Sago explosion generated at least 93 psi.
New seals must be capable of withstanding blast pressures of at
least 50 pounds per square inch, if mine operators monitor the
atmosphere behind those seals and make sure it remains
If mine operators choose not to monitor sealed areas, they'd be
required to build seals capable of withstanding 120 psi. Mines that
pose the potential of even more powerful explosions would need
seals stronger than 120 psi.
Mine operators also will be required to monitor behind existing
seals and evacuate miners if oxygen and methane reach dangerous
levels. Mines also must remove insulated cables from sealed areas
and are barred from welding, cutting or soldering within 150 feet
of a seal.
MSHA's report on Sago said a pump cable left inside the sealed
area of the mine acted like an antennae which attracted the
Additionally, mines must get design and installation plans
approved and those designs must be certified by a professional
engineer, MSHA said.
The rules are expected to have a big affect on the nation's 600
or so underground coal mines. NIOSH estimates there are 14,000
seals in U.S. mines, including 8,000 to 9,000 so-called alternative
seals made of lighter weight block like those used at Sago. Until
last year, alternative seals had to withstand 20 psi, while
traditional concrete seals typically are built to withstand 100 or
more psi.
While the industry has not yet estimated how much the new seal
requirements might cost, expenses for other safety mandates
approved after Sago are adding up.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated the federal Mine
Improvement and New Emergency Response Act would cost the industry
$128 million when it was passed last June, though the figure didn't
include lost production during training and other expenses. That
law called for additional mine rescue teams, extra emergency packs
and other materials.
Since then, costs have accelerated. The West Virginia Coal
Association, for instance, has suggested that a state requirement
that mines install airtight shelter chambers will cost the
operators perhaps $50 million.
Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy, for instance, is billing
customers for higher safety costs, which it estimates will range
between $25 million and $37 million from 2006 through 2009.
MSHA plans to hold public hearings on the emergency rules in
July in Morgantown; Lexington, Ky.; Denver; and Birmingham, Ala.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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