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Rule on methane in state mines remains stalled

By Staff, wire reports

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Tomblin administration is considering calling an emergency meeting of the West Virginia's mine safety board to push board members into action on a stalled rule aimed at toughening methane monitoring rules for the state's underground coal mines.

"We're looking at that right now," said Eugene White, director of the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training.

Administration officials were reviewing the matter after three Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety members representing the United Mine Workers union skipped a scheduled meeting on Tuesday so they could attend a UMW protest in St. Louis related to the Patriot Coal bankruptcy. That bankruptcy has jeopardized pension and health care benefits for some 20,000 retirees and dependents.

Board members Teddy Hapney, Gary Trout and Carl Egnor all attended the UMW protest in St. Louis, said union spokesman Phil Smith. Their absence left the board - which has members from labor and industry -- without a quorum and unable to take any votes on the rule, said board administrator Joel Watts.

Already, board members missed a legislative deadline to write the rules and the methane monitoring provision - a key part of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's response to the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster - remains unenforced. The Gazette first reported the board's inaction in a story two weeks ago.

Methane is explosive when it is between 5 percent and 15 percent concentration in the atmosphere.

Federal rules require mining equipment to shut down at methane concentrations of 2 percent or more. Proposed state regulations would cut that to 1.25 percent if the levels are sustained.

But Watts says the definition of "sustained'' is still in discussion, as are timetables to retrofit equipment and implement the rule.

The methane rule was approved in legislation nearly a year ago, but state regulators can't implement it until the board finishes writing the rules. The board missed that October deadline.

The West Virginia Coal Association says operators can't comply with the new standard with the existing monitors on mining machines.

"There's still a majority of members very hopeful that we can develop a set of rules that make sense on this topic,'' said Chris Hamilton's the association's vice president. "We missed the deadline, but it's always best to be a little late than not complete the task.''


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