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 kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.