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Mine safety board delays key methane rule decision

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Members of a state board have again put off making a major decision that's required before West Virginia inspectors can begin enforcing tougher methane monitoring requirements contained in Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's 2012 mine safety legislation.

Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety members agreed to issue a proposed rule on the monitoring requirements, but said they would do so without actually including a key definition that lawmakers ordered the board to develop.

Board member Chris Hamilton, a vice president and lobbyist for the West Virginia Coal Association, said board members moved ahead without that definition because the rules have been "bogged down" for too long already.

"I am very concerned about the amount of time that has expired," Hamilton said during a meeting Tuesday morning in Charleston. "I think we ought to start on the rulemaking process."

The rules at issue are needed to implement the legislation's mandate to tighten the state's requirement for mining equipment to be automatically shut off when the explosive gas methane is detected underground.

Under the bill, board members had four months from the bill's effective date -- or by October -- to write the rule.

The legislation supported by the governor, lawmakers, industry and labor was billed as a response to disaster at the former Massey Energy Upper Big Branch Mine. On April 5, 2010, a small methane ignition at Upper Big Branch grew into a huge coal-dust-fueled explosion. Twenty-nine miners died, making it the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.

Coal operators are required to monitor underground mines for methane, which can explode when it is present in an amount between 5 percent and 15 percent of the air.

Under federal rules, methane monitors are designed to automatically shut down underground mining equipment if the explosive gas is detected at concentrations of 2 percent or greater. The idea is that shutting down mining equipment removes a potential source of a spark that could ignite methane and cause a catastrophic explosion.

Initially, under legislation introduced last year by Democratic House leaders, coal-cutting devices on mining equipment would be required to automatically shut down when methane concentrations reached 1.25 percent.

During negotiations with coal industry and United Mine Workers union lobbyists, the language was rewritten so that the automatic shutdown would occur only if methane concentrations reached 1.25 percent for a "sustained period."

Lawmakers required the Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety -- a panel of industry and labor representatives appointed by the governor -- to write rules to define the phrase "sustained period."

Board members have been unable to agree on a definition of "sustained period." UMW officials want to define it to require an immediate shutdown when methane reaches 1.25 percent. Industry officials want to build in some lag time, even if it's only a few seconds.

Since the legislation passed, industry officials also said that they discovered that all machine-mounted methane monitors would have to be redesigned and reapproved by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration before the new law could be implemented. That approval process alone could take more than a year, officials have said, meaning it could be two to three years before the new monitoring requirements are implemented across the industry.

Hamilton suggested, and board members agreed, to issue a proposed rule without the key definition, in the hopes that comments from the mining community would help board members eventually come to some agreement.

"We're going to have to agree on how to define 'sustained period,'" Hamilton said. "But I'm fearful that if we wait until we do that, we're never going to have a proposed rule."

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


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