Chris Hamilton, a West Virginia Coal Association representative to the board, agreed that board members "have struggled to get the rules written."
"The board has not met its obligation under that piece of legislation, as of yet," Hamilton said last week.
Hamilton, though, said that he didn't really consider the methane monitoring provision a major part of the legislation. Hamilton said that drug-testing requirements for miners, restructuring training efforts for miners and improving mine inspection practices were more critical.
Hamilton also said the real holdup with the methane monitor rules is not necessarily agreeing to a definition of "sustained period." The legislation also requires the board rules to establish a schedule for when mine operators must have the new methane monitoring and automatic shutdown systems in place.
While lawmakers ordered the board to write its rules within 120 days, the Legislature did not set any time limit for when the monitoring and shutdown systems actually must be in place and operational. Lawmakers left that up to the board.
Also, Hamilton said setting up such a schedule is complicated by the fact that existing methane monitors have read-out systems that show only two digits. They will show a concentration of 1.5 percent methane or 1.0 percent methane, but not 1.25 percent methane, Hamilton said.
To comply with the state's new rules, mine operators will have to convince methane monitor manufacturers to provide them with entirely new units. Those units will have to be designed and built -- and go through the process of receiving federal approval to be used in underground mines, Hamilton said. This could take three years or more, he said.
Mark Sindelar, a West Virginia University engineering professor who has studied methane monitoring systems, said the problem could have been avoided had lawmakers set the methane shutoff levels at 1.2 percent or 1.3 percent instead of 1.25 percent.
"People sometimes underestimate the hardware side of changes," Sindelar said. "If they would have set it at 1.2 percent or 1.3 percent, it would have been a pretty easy technological change."
Longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer said state officials and lawmakers -- and certainly industry officials -- should have realized that their change was going to require entirely new methane monitoring equipment. Industry officials raised the issue with him before the bill passed, McAteer said, and he referred those concerns to the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training.
Caputo complained that industry lobbyists clearly should have understood the issue, but never raised it during negotiations at the statehouse.
"Nobody from the industry said at the time that it wasn't doable," Caputo said.
Eugene White, who took over this month as director of the state mine safety office, did not respond to repeated phone messages or emails. Neither the mine safety office nor the mine safety board responded to requests for documents about efforts to write the methane monitor rules. Watts, the board administrator, would not comment.
On Friday, the Governor's Office issued a short statement in which Tomblin said, "These rules are critical to the safety of all miners and their families. I urge the board to quickly reconvene and make this a priority."
McAteer, though, said the way the issue has been handled makes him question whether mine safety enforcement is really a top priority for state officials.
"The failure to fix this suggests we weren't paying attention," McAteer said. "We need to make sure these improvements can take place in a reasonable time frame."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.