Gov. Joe Manchin is giving coal operators more time to install new mine rescue gear, and appointing a labor-industry task force to work out concerns about wireless communications and miner tracking systems.Manchin is also mandating that state mines be equipped with rescue chambers to provide miners with more emergency oxygen, administration officials said Monday.Each rescue chamber would include a 24-hour air supply, compared to the 16 hours of breathing devices Manchin had earlier required in a cache at the working face of each state mine.But, the governor is backing away from a mandate — looming next week — for mine operators to submit plans to install wireless communications and tracking devices.Instead, Manchin will appoint a six-person task force to review the “commercial availability and functional and operational capability” of the equipment.A report from that task force would be due in 90 days. Half of its members would be from the United Mine Workers and half from the West Virginia Coal Association.After reading that report, acting mine safety Director James M. Dean would “as soon as practicable” issue a notice to begin requiring the communications and tracking devices, according to the governor’s plan.The governor’s latest mine-safety actions are spelled out in a new emergency rule that was expected to be filed late Monday or early today with Secretary of State Betty Ireland.Carte Goodwin, Manchin’s general counsel, said that the new rule was aimed at addressing coal industry concerns that the communications and tracking devices may not work at all locations in all underground mines.“To the extent that problems would arise with any of this existing technology, the task force is going to be charged with exploring how we can overcome those obstacles,” Goodwin said during an interview Monday morning.
Bill Raney, president of the coal association, praised the new version of the rule.“It is certainly an improvement over what the original filing was,” Raney said.Raney said the original rule included “such an aggressive timetable and didn’t give much regard to the availability, reliability and capability of the equipment.“To mandate that everyone have these things certainly seems to be shortsighted,” Raney said.UMW spokesman Phil Smith said the union supports the new rule and hopes the task force would provide a forum to show that the equipment does work.
“This gives [us] an opportunity to look at the technologies that are already out there, and maybe improve on them as well,” Smith said.The rescue equipment rule is one of two rules intended to implement the new mine rescue bill that 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 operators 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.Regulators filled in the details in two emergency rules that took effect Feb. 9.By filing a new rule, the administration gave mine operators an additional month to submit plans to detail how they will meet the additional oxygen requirement.
Prior to the Sago Mine disaster, federal and state laws required operators to provide every miner with just one hour of emergency oxygen.Under Manchin’s original rule, all mines would have been required to provide a cache of 16 one-hour breathing devices for each miner in each working section.Also, companies would have to provide additional caches of one device per miner every 2,500 or 1,250 feet in each entry, depending on the size of the mine.In the new rule, that working-section cache would be required to contain two one-hour breathing devices for each miner. Also, the cache could be up to 500 feet away from the face in each working section.The new rule also requires caches of one device per miner, located no more than 30 minutes apart, between the working face and the mine exit.In the new rule, each mine operator would also be required to install an “emergency shelter/chamber” within 1,000 feet of the face in each working section.Each chamber would be equipped with first-aid materials, food and water, and equipment to communicate with the mine surface.But the chambers would not be required until the task force studies them and Dean issues a notice to outline which types are acceptable.“We want to get the best available technology into the mines as quickly as possible,” Goodwin said. “This task force helps give them answers. We will start looking at these things, maybe do some testing, and figure out what works.”