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Methane rule rewrite wanted

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A state board decided Wednesday to ask lawmakers to rewrite a key portion of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's mine safety bill, after concluding a mandated change in methane monitoring requirements was not feasible.

The state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety instead proposed to adopt federal regulations on methane monitoring, but with a tougher standard than what is enforced by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Board members asked after repeated delays that left them about 10 months behind schedule to write a rule for tightening the state's requirement for mining equipment to be automatically shut off when the explosive gas methane is detected underground.

"The board, after nearly a year of deliberations, could not come up with a way to implement the legislative mandate," board administrator Joel Watts explained after the board's decision at a meeting in Charleston.

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 of Delegates leaders, coal-cutting devices on mining equipment would be required to shut down automatically when methane concentrations reached 1.25 percent.

During negotiations with coal industry and United Mine Workers 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." The rules were due in October 2012.

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 reapproved by MSHA 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.

Watts said the board decided Wednesday to adopt the MSHA rules, except that the state would require mining equipment to be automatically shut down when methane reaches 1.5 percent, not 2.0 percent as federal rules mandate. He said the board's goal was to provide "an increased level of safety" beyond what MSHA now requires.

The board's proposal is scheduled to take effect Nov. 1, Watts said.

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


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