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