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2 years after UBB, coal-dust reform slowly moving forward

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As the second anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster approaches, attention remains focused on the ongoing criminal investigation and congressional inaction on mine safety reforms.

But some coal operators -- pushed in part by a U.S. Justice Department deal -- are quietly moving forward to use much more advanced devices to provide real-time monitoring of the levels of explosive coal dust in their underground mines.

Alpha Natural Resources agreed to install the devices as part of an agreement with U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin to resolve any potential criminal liability for the Upper Big Branch explosion.

Last week, lawmakers in Washington learned that the devices are available commercially, ready for use as a compliance tool, and being used by other coal companies, including CONSOL Energy and Patriot Coal.

But United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said that the entire industry is not going to adopt the "explosibility" meters unless the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration or Congress makes them.

"This equipment can provide immediate, real-time information about the incombustibility of rock dust to coal dust levels," Roberts told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. "While better and newer dust explosibility meters exist, most operators -- as well as MSHA -- are not purchasing them because they are not required to use them."

Twenty-nine miners died in the April 5, 2010, explosion at Upper Big Branch. It was the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.

At Upper Big Branch, four investigations found that a crucial problem was mine operator Massey Energy's failure to spread adequate amounts of crushed limestone, or rock dust, to keep coal dust from exploding.

As Roberts reminded lawmakers last week, current MSHA protocols use outdated equipment to sample rock dust, and samples then have to be sent to a lab for analysis.

"It takes two to three weeks to return the results," Roberts said. "At Upper Big Branch, samples taken before the April 5 explosion showed that the mine had inadequate rock dust -- but those sample results were not reported until after the disaster. We are left to wonder whether having the results in real time would have averted this disaster."

More than 20 years ago, the old Bureau of Mines began promoting a new optical meter that could immediately tell if coal operators had not adequately rock-dusted their mines. But the industry never deployed the devices, and MSHA never required companies to do so.

At last week's House hearing, Jeff Kohler, mining researcher director for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, testified that coal-dust explosibility meters, or CDEMs, -- marketed by the company Sensidyne<co > -- became commercially available in June 2011.

"This commercialization was preceded by extensive in-mine testing throughout the United States, which demonstrated the utility and accuracy of the device," Kohler told lawmakers. "Presently, some mine operators are beginning to use the CDEM to assess the explosion hazard and make adjustments in real time."

In his report on the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, issued in May 2011, special investigator Davitt McAteer argued that NIOSH and the industry spent far too long testing the devices before moving to get them actually working in active mines. McAteer urged MSHA to require the devices to help spur commercial availability.

In its most recent budget proposal to Congress, MSHA said it "may engage in regulatory actions" such as requiring coal-dust explosibility meters, but the agency has not announced any formal plans for such a rule.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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