Coal operators continued Tuesday to pick away at a new federal rule that aims to help miners escape safely from mine fires and explosions.
Industry officials said that they support the rule’s intent, but disagree with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s specific proposals.
“The industry is committed, and CONSOL is committed, to avoiding a repeat of the tragic loss of lives at Sago and Aracoma,” said Elizabeth Chamberlin, general manager for safety at Pittsburgh-based CONSOL Energy Inc.
Chamberlin was among about a dozen industry safety managers and lobbyists who testified Tuesday at a public hearing on the proposed MSHA mine rescue rules.
The hearing, in the rooftop pavilion at the Charleston Marriott, was the last in a series of four hearings on the MSHA rules.
In March, MSHA issued its rules as an “emergency temporary standard,” in response to the Sago Mine disaster and the deaths of two miners in the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine fire.
Under federal mine safety laws, MSHA can enforce such rules immediately, when it determines that miners are in “grave danger” without the rules. MSHA has used this authority twice before, once in 1987 to require additional training on using emergency breathing devices and once in 2002 to rewrite mine evacuation rules.
Legally, the rule took effect when MSHA published it in March. The same language acts as a proposed rule for purposes of public hearings and a comment period. Under the law, MSHA has until December to issue a final version.
Ron Bowersox, a safety officer with the United Mine Workers, said that his union has advocated many of the changes in the new MSHA rule for years.
“We’re here sitting in Charleston, West Virginia, to discuss things that should have already been taken care of,” Bowersox said.
Among other things, the rule issued in March requires operators to provide miners with enough emergency oxygen to successfully escape from underground.
Mining companies have generally not opposed that requirement, but they have complained about the precise MSHA requirements for locating caches of the breathing devices, called self-contained self-rescuers.
Chamberlin, for example, said CONSOL has maintained “generous” supplies of SCSRs in its large underground mines for years, and is in the process of adding more.
But CONSOL and other operators at Tuesday’s hearing objected to MSHA’s refusal to allow companies to stockpile SCSRs in air-lock rooms locked between adjacent mine escape tunnels.
In a two-volume compliance guide, MSHA said that such locations do not meet the rule’s test of being “in” the primary and alternate escapeways.
As they did in previous hearings in Colorado, Kentucky and suburban Washington, D.C., industry officials also opposed some of the rules’ central provisions.
For example, numerous company safety managers said aging miners should not be forced to actually walk out mine escapeways — which can sometimes be many miles long — during training exercises every 90 days.
Doug Conaway, a former West Virginia mine safety chief now working for Arch Coal Inc., said MSHA should instead focus on training miners to handle mine escapes in smoke-filled tunnels.
“Training of this type would be more meaningful then walking the entire escapeway,” Conaway said.
Mine operators also objected repeatedly to a requirement — modeled after a new West Virginia law pushed by Gov. Joe Manchin — to require mine accidents to be reported to regulators within 15 minutes.
John Gallick, safety director for Foundation Coal Corp., said that 15 minutes does not give companies time enough to gather much information for MSHA or state regulators.
“Only a bare minimum of details will be available,” Gallick said.
Other operators said MSHA does not need such quick reporting for all mine accidents, and complained that the reporting could interfere with company efforts to treat injured mines or save lives.
Tony Bumbico, safety vice president at Arch Coal, said that 90 percent of the accidents that would be reported under the rule do not involve injuries to miners. Instead, they involve unplanned roof falls and damage to hoisting equipment — things that require no emergency response by MSHA, Bumbico said.
Chamberlin said CONSOL is concerned the reports would create a “media frenzy” that would “create angst among our families and negative press for the industry as a whole.”
Mike Wright, safety director for the United Steelworkers, urged MSHA to expand its new SCSR rules to metal and nonmetal mines.
Miners in those operations, many of which are Steelworkers members, are not required to be equipped with SCSRs. Wright noted the Clinton administration began a rulemaking to require SCSRs in metal and nonmetal mines, but the effort was abandoned after George W. Bush became president.
Wright also reminded those at the hearing that Tuesday was the anniversary of the 1992 explosion that killed 26 miners at the Westray Mine in Nova Scotia.
After that disaster, Canada passed laws that allow criminal prosecution of mine operators when workers are killed because of corporate negligence.
“I hope that we can achieve that someday in this country,” Wright said.
Staff writer Ken Ward Jr.’s continued coverage of mine safety is being supported by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. To contact Ward, use e-mail or call 348-1702.