Inspectors, Coal Execs Worry Federal Mine Seal Rule Goes Too Far

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Now it's the industry's turn to expound
on unprecedented and expensive new federal requirements for sealing
abandoned areas in underground coal mines.
Coal companies, industry groups, organized labor, even
regulators from coal-producing states seemingly have plenty to say
about the emergency rule put out by the federal Mine Safety and
Health Administration on May 18. All say they plan to speak at the
first public comment session on the rule Tuesday in Morgantown.
"There's a lot of confusion. There's confusion as it relates to
the (rule) and the explanation that accompanied it," said Ron
Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and
For instance, MSHA needs to clarify just how strong new seals
must be, said Wooten, who'll be representing the 19-state
Interstate Mining Compact Commission.
The rule is designed to protect more than 30,000 men and women
who work in underground mines that seal abandoned sections from
Utah and Colorado to West Virginia and Kentucky. It requires
operators to build far stronger seals and monitor the atmosphere
behind them for explosive gases and, in some cases, to evacuate
Methane explosions that killed 17 West Virginia and Kentucky
miners last year prompted MSHA to adopt the rule immediately rather
than follow the normal yearlong procedure. Both the Sago Mine and
Kentucky Darby blasts occurred in abandoned, sealed mine sections.
The rule applies to a broad swath of the U.S. coal industry.
MSHA estimates 372 of the nation's 670 underground coal mines seal
abandoned areas and those mines employ more than 70 percent of the
nation's 42,700 underground miners.
MSHA estimates it will cost the industry $39.7 million a year to
meet the new requirements. That comes atop an estimated $128
million for complying with a sweeping federal safety law passed
last year and another $50 million for West Virginia's 254
underground mines to purchase airtight emergency shelters.
The rule requires seals capable of withstanding blast pressures
of at least 50 pounds per square inch, if mine operators make sure
the atmosphere behind those seals remains nonexplosive. Mines could
avoid monitoring by building seals to withstand 120 psi. And mines
at risk of more powerful explosions would need even stronger seals.
Since last year, West Virginia has required Mitchell-Barrett
concrete block seal capable of withstanding about 100 psi. "That
was the Cadillac and now we don't even know whether it's acceptable
to the federal government," Wooten said.
If MSHA sets the standard too high, Wooten believes mines will
stop using seals altogether. While that's an option, it would
expose miners and government inspectors to hazards such as
collapsing roofs in disused mining sections.
"They've got to be examined weekly," he said. "Someone has to
go back in there and examine it and if they find something, then
someone has to go in there and correct it. If we have the
opportunity to seal, that's what we should do."
The coal industry also expects to comment on the measure.
"It doesn't go far enough in making a risk-based determination
for the standards it proposes," said National Mining Association
spokesman Luke Popovich. "If a risk of failure is determined to
justify a higher standard, then by all means let's require it. But
let's first assess the risk before requiring wholesale changes that
may not be necessary, let alone improve safety conditions."
Wooten said West Virginia also plans to push MSHA to consider
allowing mines to find ways to deflect explosive forces before they
reach seals, perhaps by using strategically stacked bags of rock
Though the rule is in effect, MSHA isn't expected to adopt the
final version until February, and Wooten said the time to add blast
mitigation is now.
"You don't have to necessarily have a gigantic seal," he said.
The notion has the support of the West Virginia Coal
Association, said Senior Vice President Chris Hamilton. "It might
be some type of gel substance, water, sand," he said. "There may
be ways to deflect that blast" to lessen the impact on the seal.
The West Virginia session is the first of four. MSHA also plans
sessions for Thursday in Lexington, Ky., July 17 in Denver and July
19 in Birmingham, Ala.

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

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