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Mine board sends 'proximity detection' issue to subcommittee

FLATWOODS, W.Va. -- After months of discussions about "proximity detection" devices, members of a state board on Thursday reached a conclusion: They need to talk some more about whether to require West Virginia's mine operators to install the life-saving equipment.

For the fourth monthly meeting in a row, Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety members could not agree on an approach for a new rule to mandate the devices or otherwise take steps to curb crushing deaths and injuries in underground mines.

So, board members voted to send the matter to a subcommittee that would try to sort out various industry and labor proposals.

Terry Hudson, an industry representative to the board, said the move would allow the subcommittee to start with "a clean slate" to begin "tackling this problem."

Creation of the subcommittee -- set to meet Jan. 9 -- is the latest maneuver by the board, which renewed discussions of proximity devices after a Charleston Gazette story in August that detailed the state's inaction on the issue.

Mine safety experts say proximity detection systems could help prevent one of the most common types of mining accidents -- being crushed or pinned by mobile underground equipment -- by stopping mining machines and coal-haulage vehicles when they get too close to workers.

Nationwide between 1984 and 2010, 30 miners died and 200 were injured when they became crushed, pinned or struck underground by continuous-mining machines, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

On the federal level, MSHA has been working on two rules to require proximity-detection systems nationwide. One proposal, covering only continuous-mining machines, is stuck inside MSHA. The other, addressing all other mobile underground equipment, has been pending at the White House Office of Management and Budget for more than two years.

Regulators and industry officials have touted the fact that some mine operators are installing proximity detection systems on their own. But only about 4 percent of mobile underground equipment in West Virginia mines has the devices, according to the most recent state survey, taken in August.

West Virginia mine safety officials had at one point hoped to be far ahead of MSHA in taking action. But despite a September 2008 recommendation from a group of top state inspectors, no new state rules have ever been finalized.

Last month, industry and United Mine Workers representatives to the board had put on the agenda for this week competing proposals. The UMW had urged faster action and a rule covering more types of underground equipment, while the industry wanted more time and a more limited scope of equipment.

Under state law, the board generally writes West Virginia's mine safety and health rules. The separate Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training inspects mines and enforces the board's rules. The governor appoints members of the six-person board, with three members from industry and three from labor.

During Thursday's meeting in Flatwoods, United Mine Workers board representative Gary Trout moved that the board create a subcommittee that would examine all of the pending proposals.

Initially, board member Chris Hamilton, a vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, opposed the idea.

Hamilton said that the UMW's version of a rule had already been voted down -- in a 3-3 split between industry and labor -- and therefore could not be revisited unless one of the industry representatives reconsidered their original vote.

UMW members argued that Trout's proposal this time was different, and Hamilton eventually relented.

Hamilton repeated his early request that the board look not just at proximity devices, but also at cameras, strobe lights, additional equipment inspections and other steps that could prevent crushing and pinning accidents.

"I still maintain that the issue requires a broad approach rather than just considering the one aspect," Hamilton said.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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