CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The U.S. coal industry needs to adopt more effective dust-control measures and comprehensive monitoring for explosive gases to avoid disasters like the one that killed 29 miners a year ago at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine, an independent investigator said Thursday.
Davitt McAteer, a longtime safety advocate who leads an independent team of experts, also said that criminal mine-safety statutes need to be broadened and federal regulators need to abandon closed-door investigations after major accidents.
"Disasters are not an inevitable part of the mining cycle," McAteer said. "We can mine coal safely."
McAteer previewed his team's recommendations during a panel discussion in Charleston at Wheeling Jesuit's 4th-annual International Mining Health and Safety Symposium.
Gov. Joe Manchin appointed McAteer to perform the review after the April 5, 2010, explosion. As with similar reviews, following the deaths at the Sago and Aracoma mines in 2006, McAteer's team is taking a broad look at the mine operator and at government regulators.
McAteer said his team would release its report within a few weeks, outlining its conclusions about the causes of the Upper Big Branch disaster and urging reforms in the way mines are operated, rescue efforts performed and accidents investigated.
"There are not pre-ordained numbers of miners who have to perish to produce the nation's energy," he said. "The fate of these miners is not in the hands of God, but in the hands of the mining community."
McAteer has previously generally agreed with preliminary conclusions from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration about the overall cause of the disaster. MSHA investigators believe the explosion involved the ignition of a small amount of methane gas, and that blast was made far worse by a buildup underground of highly explosive coal dust.
Among the recommendations McAteer outlined Thursday:
| Congress should pass legislation making it a felony for anyone to "subvert the inspection system" by warning workers or mine management that government inspectors are on their way to a mine or headed underground.
"Why do you think the State Police don't announce where they're going to place their cars on the highway?" McAteer said. "They want to catch us in our normal conduct. They want to see what we would do."
| Federal and state authorities should require more comprehensive application by coal operators of crushed limestone, or "rock dust," in underground mines, using mechanical application methods, to prevent small ignitions from turning into major explosions.
"It is not an expensive fix and it is not a difficult fix," McAteer said. "It is a time-consuming fix, and it is a pain in the neck to fix if you have to do it day in and day out."
| Regulators should require operators to use "passive barriers," such as bags or boxes of rock dust or water, which have been shown effective in other countries at preventing the spread of explosions when the barriers are hung from the roof of underground tunnels.