As Roberts reminded lawmakers last week, current MSHA protocols use outdated equipment to sample rock dust, and samples then have to be sent to a lab for analysis.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 kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.