The Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine was operating under a new Bush administration ventilation rule that might help underground coal-mine fires spread, according to government records and interviews. The ventilation plan also might block crucial emergency escape routes, and expose miners to a greater risk of deadly black lung disease, according to a review of government studies and interviews with mine safety experts over the past two days. The Alma No. 1 Mine used its conveyor belt — the area where a deadly fire broke out Thursday night — to draw fresh air to the working face, the area where coal is actually mined. When mines are arranged this way, and a fire breaks out on a belt, the belt tunnel can carry flames and deadly gases directly to the miners’ work area, or to vital evacuation routes. Since at least 1969, such mine layouts were generally illegal. Regulators approved them only on a limited, case-by-case basis, and conditioned upon numerous special safeguards. But in 2004, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration rewrote federal rules to allow widespread use of such ventilation plans. The move gave the coal industry a regulatory change it had sought for more than 15 years, records show. Davitt McAteer, Gov. Joe Manchin’s adviser on mine safety issues, had blocked the change for nearly eight years while he was MSHA chief for the Clinton administration. “We had major concerns about it,” said McAteer, a Marion County native, Friday morning. “If a fire could occur on a belt, that fire and the deadly gases that the fire produces will be carried directly to the working face where the miners are.” It is not yet clear exactly what caused the Aracoma Mine fire, or if the mine’s use of its belt tunnel as a fresh-air intake played a role in spreading the blaze. But when MSHA proposed to allow widespread use of such ventilation plans, the United Mine Workers union warned that the change would “have a significant and detrimental impact on miners.” “High velocities of air being coursed through those belt entries could propagate fires and swiftly have smoke and poisonous contaminants dumped on the coal faces where miners work,” the UMW said in a June 2003 letter to MSHA. In response, MSHA dismissed such concerns. Agency officials said that, with additional fire monitoring and prevention equipment, it “would not reduce the protection afforded” the nation’s 42,000 underground coal miners. “The use of belt air, under the conditions set forth in the proposed rule, would maintain the level of safety in underground mines while implementing advances in mining technology,” MSHA said in a Federal Register notice. Coal mine managers must carefully design and maintain underground mines to avoid fires, explosions and other disasters. Elaborate ventilation systems are needed to give miners clean air to breathe, and to control the build-up of explosive methane gas and coal dust. To achieve these goals, underground mines are not just one wide tunnel. Instead, they are a series of long, parallel passageways, called entries, crisscrossed by smaller tunnels. Using cinder blocks and other construction materials — called stoppings — the smaller tunnels are blocked off from the entries. This isolates the longer tunnels, helping to channel air and dangerous gases in a way that safely ventilates the mine. Entries are used for various purposes: Some for tracks that run vehicles in and out of the mine, others for fresh-air intakes, for bad-air returns or for conveyor belts that haul coal to the surface. When Congress wrote the 1969 federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, lawmakers specifically stated that “belt entries” and “intake air courses” must be separate. In its report on the legislation, the Senate said, “The objective of the section is to reduce high air velocities ... in belt haulage-ways where the coal is transported because such velocities fan and propagate mine fines, many of which originate along the haulage-ways. “Rapid intake air currents also carry products of the fire to the working places quickly before the men know of the fire and lessen their time for escape,” the Senate report said. “If they use the return air-courses to escape, the air coursed through may contain these products and quickly overtake them.” On Friday, acting deputy MSHA administrator Bob Friend initially told reporters that the Aracoma Mine was not using its belt entry as a fresh-air intake. However, agency records show that the Aracoma operation received special approval in August 2000 to do so. Asked later Friday about those records, MSHA spokesman Peter Hong confirmed that Friend misspoke during a telephone briefing with reporters. Under federal law, MSHA may grant a “petition for modification” that allows coal companies to operate outside of normal mine safety standards. To get approval, companies are required to show that their alternate mine plans are just as safe as the general MSHA rules. When MSHA approved the Aracoma petition for modification, the agency noted that the company planned to install special fire-detection equipment and fire alarms. Those steps would make it safe to use the belt entry for intake air, MSHA concluded. Between 1998 and 2003, MSHA approved about 90 modification petitions to allow belt entries to be used for fresh-air intakes. Coal industry officials, though, felt that the process of seeking approval for such a petition was too cumbersome. Industry lobbyists had long sought a broader rule change. The Bituminous Coal Operators Association, for example, complained that the petition process, “regrettably ... often becomes mired in controversy where issues unrelated to the underlying petition are concerned.” MSHA proposed such a rule change in January 1988, as part of a broader rewrite of ventilation standards for underground coal mines. But the proposal was so controversial that MSHA held repeated public hearings, conducted a special review of the subject and later formed an advisory committee to conduct additional study. Still, the rule change went nowhere, until it was revived in January 2003 by Dave Lauriski, a longtime coal industry executive appointed by President Bush to run MSHA. When Lauriski proposed the change, MSHA officials argued that they were going along with recommendations from the agency’s earlier review and the advisory committee report. In public comments on the proposal, UMW safety officer James Lamont argued that MSHA ignored contrary advice from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Lamont noted that NIOSH officials previously expressed concern that using belt entries as air intakes would push coal dust toward workers at the mine face. Also, Lamont cited previous NIOSH comments that, “the practice of ventilating with belt air at any velocity is unsafe and unhealthy.” NIOSH also warned that “the use of high velocities would increase fire and explosion hazards from coal dust.” Among those who commented in favor of the MSHA rule change was Kevin Tuttle, manager of health, safety and training for the Deer Creek Mine, owned by Lauriski’s former company, Energy West Mining. In its comments, the National Mining Association said the rule, “once finalized and implemented, will reduce the administrative and paperwork burdens on both the industry and agency while enhancing the safety and health for miners where belt air ventilation is utilized.” Dennis O’Dell, the UMW’s national safety director, said Friday the move toward using belt entries as air intakes is driven by the need for coal companies to more quickly develop mining sections for longwall machines, like the one used at the Aracoma Mine. If operators cannot use the belt entry to suck fresh air into the mine, they have to build another entry. That takes time and money. “[The Aracoma fire] is exactly why you don’t want to do this,” O’Dell said. “The fire and the gases and the carbon monoxide go right to where the workers are.” Joe Main, then the UMW’s top safety official, noted during the comment period that NIOSH also had said, “Belt-air usage represents the least expensive method of increasing ventilation to the face — not the best for worker health and safety.” Among those who opposed the rule change was a group of miners from the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine outside Tuscaloosa, Ala. In their comments, those miners said the use of a belt entry as intake air was partly to blame for the September 2001 explosion that killed 13 of their fellow miners. “The sad fact is that the same belt-air mine ventilation system that created the hazardous conditions that caused the disastrous gas and dust explosions in the No. 5 mine still exists today,” the miners told MSHA.