Coal operators would have no deadline to provide miners with additional oxygen supplies and other rescue gear under rules filed this week by the Manchin administration.The rules also include a number of restrictions on members of the public obtaining information about mine emergencies that companies report to a new rapid-response center.Administration officials filed the emergency rules late Wednesday with West Virginia Secretary of State Betty Ireland.The rules are intended to implement the mine rescue bill Gov. Joe Manchin pushed through the Legislature after the Sago Mine disaster and the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine fire.
In that legislation (SB247), lawmakers created a new mine emergency-response system and required coal companies to provide miners with additional emergency air supplies, communications equipment and tracking devices.Under the bill, state mine safety and homeland security officials were given broad discretion to work out details of the requirements. Among other things, lawmakers did not specify how many additional air canisters must be provided or where they must be located in underground mines.In one of the rules filed Wednesday, the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training said operators would have to provide additional caches of air supplies — called self-contained self-rescuer devices, or SCSRs — at various locations in their mines.Under the rule, each cache must contain enough SCSRs to give each miner at least 16 additional devices.In mines with coal seams taller than four feet, caches would be required every 2,500 feet in each working section. In smaller mines, caches would be required every 1,250 feet, according to the rule.The rule gives operators 30 days to submit proposed plans for cache locations, and requires the mine safety office to review those plans and suggest any needed changes. But, the rule does not set a definite deadline for when mine operators would have to have the SCSRs in place.It also does not set deadlines for providing miners with new communications equipment or tracking devices.Doug Conaway, director of the state mine safety office, said the rules were written that way because of concerns that mine operators will not be able to quickly obtain the new equipment.“As soon as they are available, we’re expecting them to be in the mines,” Conaway said Thursday.“An operator is going to have to show us that they have it or that it’s on order,” Conaway said. “If they can’t get them, they are going to have to show us that they have ordered them and that they are trying to get them.”Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said his group’s members already are being told they will have to wait months to get new SCSR supplies.
“I know there are several months of backlog right now,” Hamilton said.Hamilton also repeated his previous concerns that the communications and tracking systems mandated by Manchin’s bill will not work.“There is still some concern on the reliability of the wireless communications and tracking system,” Hamilton said. “A lot of that is still in the prototype stage and not commercially available.”The communications and tracking systems, though, are used in other countries and in some mines in the United States. In a formal rulemaking report in 2003, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said that the systems are “generally effective” and the agency “encourages” their use.By filing emergency rules, the administration can put the requirements into effect as soon as Ireland approves them. If she takes no action, the emergency rules take effect in 42 days.Under the law, the administration must file a proposed rule for public comment within 30 days, and then submit any revisions 60 days after that, said Judy Cooper, chief of the administrative law division at the Secretary of State’s office.
The final rules would then require legislative approval. A legislative review isn’t likely to take place until the 2007 session. The emergency rule can remain in effect for 15 months, Cooper said.In a separate emergency rule on the new “Mine and Industrial Accident Rapid Response System,” the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security included a variety of provisions that block or hinder the public release of mine accident information.The rule states that requests filed under the state Freedom of Information Act “shall be held in abeyance until appropriate notification of next of kin of any deceased or victims that are grievously injured.” But, it also says any requests for information about mine accidents reported to the new response system must include the “exact dates and times” of accidents and “the intended use of any information provided.”If someone wanted to obtain every report filed with the new system, but did not know the dates of each report filed, the state could turn down that information request.Information about the condition of anyone injured in a mining accident would not be released without the consent of the next of kin, the rule says.Jimmy Gianato, the state’s homeland security director, said that there was no intent to hinder efforts by the public or the press to obtain information about mining accidents.“You would probably be able to get whatever you want, with the exception of victim information if the next of kin has not been notified,” Gianato.Gianato said the language might need to be revised if questions are raised about properly responding to FOIA requests.“We might need to look at that,” he said. “That’s why this is an emergency rule, so we can review it and make changes if they are needed.”To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.