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Board delays methane rule again

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

Rules to implement the methane monitoring language were on the agenda for a Tuesday meeting of the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety. But the board, meeting at a hotel in Sutton, never took up the matter.

"It's disappointing that they haven't addressed it yet," said Tomblin administration Deputy Commerce Secretary Joshua Jarrell, who attended the meeting. "We've encouraged them to address that rule, but it's an independent board."

The state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, which would enforce the rule issued by the board, is part of the state Department of Commerce.

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 2012 -- to write the rule.

Board members were unable to act on the rule at Tuesday's meeting because one of the board members, United Mine Workers representative Ted Hapney, was absent. Earlier this year, the board was also unable to act on the matter because of member absences.

Under state law, all six voting members of the board must be present for votes on any substantive matter. The six voting members are evenly split between industry and labor representatives appointed by the governor after the coal industry and the UMW recommend them.

But even before the member absences, the board had repeatedly delayed action on the methane monitoring rules.

The methane requirements are part of legislation supported by the governor, lawmakers, industry and labor. The legislation was billed as a response to the 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.

Generally, 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 UMW 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 to write rules to define the phrase "sustained period."

Board members have for months 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 re-approved 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.

In late March, the board issued a draft rule for public comment, but did not specify a definition of "sustained period," asking instead for ideas from the mining community for how to define the term.

The only comment submitted came from board member Chris Hamilton, who is vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

"We would recommend that the board develop a definition for a 'sustained period' in the instant rule that would take into account an individual's response time to observe the methane level and to react accordingly," Hamilton wrote in an April 30 comment. "This is a key component of the board's statutory charge and must be defined before new methane detection technologies are designed, tested, approved and manufactured."

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


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