Federal mine safety officials on Thursday announced the formation of a panel to study the use of conveyor belt tunnels to bring fresh air into underground coal mines.The panel, formed by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, also will examine the composition and fire-retardant properties of conveyor belt materials.MSHA formed the panel to examine the issues only after being ordered to do so by Congress in a broad mine-safety reform bill passed in June.“MSHA is committed to fully implementing the MINER Act, and we are taking the lead in forming and administering this panel,” said Richard Stickler, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.Under the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006, known as the MINER Act, the panel has a year to finish a report.Lawmakers mandated that the panel “provide independent scientific and engineering review and recommendations with respect to the utilization of belt air and the composition and fire retardant properties of belt materials in underground coal mining.”In its charter, MSHA said that the committee would meet at least three times and that the study would cost about $600,000.Congress expressed concern about conveyor belt safety following the Jan. 19 fire that killed two workers at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County.Since at least 1969, the use of conveyor belt tunnels as fresh-air intakes for underground mines was generally illegal. Critics argue that the practice helps carry flames and toxic fumes toward working sections, endangering miners.In 2004, the Bush administration rewrote federal rules to allow the widespread use of “belt air.” The move gave the coal industry a regulatory change it had sought for more than 15 years.
In 2002, the Bush administration dropped a regulatory proposal to make coal operators use more flame-retardant materials in underground conveyor belts. That proposal had been in the works for more than a decade.MSHA said the members of its belt study panel are:s Jurgen E. Brune, chief of disaster prevention and response for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Pittsburgh.s Felipe Calizaya, an associate professor at the University of Utah.s Thomas Mucho, a mining consultant from Washington, Pa.
s Jan M. Mutmansky, professor emeritus of mining engineering at Penn State.s Jerry C. Tien, associate professor at the University of Missouri-Rolla.s James L. Weeks, a mining consultant in Silver Spring, Md.MSHA also announced that the group will meet Jan. 9-10 in Washington, D.C., to elect a chairperson and develop a plan to meet its objectives.To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.