Federal regulators to set safety-hazards rule

April 4, 2012

A final rule that is to be published in the U.S. Federal Register on April 6 address safety standards for ventilation, methane, roof-support systems and the use of inert crushed limestone to prevent coal-dust explosions, among others that are most often responsible for serious accidents in the nation’s mines.

Federal regulators said the final rule requires U.S. mining companies to identify and correct nine key safety hazards during mine examinations. The publication of the rule is part of the government’s efforts to tighten safety regulations following a 2010 accident that killed 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, The Wall Street Journal reported.

“If mine operators comply with these standards there’s no question in my mind that mines in this country will be safer,” said Joe Main, head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The rule was first proposed in December 2010, and Main said it was partly in response to the explosion at Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, WV. In that case, MSHA found the company failed to correct problems related to ventilation, methane and combustible coal dust among other things. The hazards ultimately resulted in a massive coal-dust explosion.

Main told The Wall Street Journal that underground coal mines, which make up 4 percent of the nation’s mines, still account for far too high a percentage of safety violations. In 2010, the MSHA issued 80,000 citations at underground coal mines, representing nearly half of the total 173,000 citations issued at all mines that year.

“Underground coal mines represent some of the greatest challenges that we have in the mining industry,” Main said. “If MSHA can walk through a mine and find these things, so can an operator.”

Industry officials said they didn't oppose the rule or the MSHA’s emphasis on the nine safety standards.

“It appears that they’re focusing the rule a great deal more on the factors and the violations that have the potential to pose real risk to miners,” said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association (NMA). “We think that is far more preferable to a blanket approach that would indiscriminately cover all potential violations.”

NMA announced a voluntary initiative to improve safety systems across companies with the goal of having zero fatalities industrywide by the end of 2015. The industry initiative was developed without input from regulators. So far this year, there have been 10 fatalities at U.S. mines, compared with 37 for all of 2011, according to the MSHA.


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