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Proximity detector rule OK'd for public comment

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Members of the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety agreed Thursday to put out for public comment a proposed rule that would require proximity detection devices on continuous mining equipment.

But in the face of a lawsuit at the state Supreme Court, the board decided not to require those devices on other mining equipment.

The devices would function to stop machines moving too close to miners and to warn miners when they are too close to those moving machines. The technology is designed to keep miners from getting crushed by those mining machines.

The proposal, which should go out for public comment in the next several days, would require the proximity detection devices on all "newly purchased" place-change continuous miners within six months of the rule's passage, and all "rebuilt" place-change miners within 12 months of passage, according to a news release from the board.

But the proposed rule would allow coal operators to place either proximity devices or cameras on scoop cars and battery-powered haulage equipment and give them three years to do so.

The news release from the board called the proposal "unprecedented" and "comprehensive."

Joel Watts, administrator of the board, said the board's six members at the Thursday meeting unanimously agreed "to post the proposal for comment" for a 30-day period.

"The board's commitment to mine safety is reflected throughout the multipronged approach to correcting underground coal mining dangers and to put West Virginia's coal miners in a safer environment than what exists anywhere else in the world," Watts said in his news release.

Watts called the board's action "quick and decisive." But the lawsuit filed last month by the public-interest firm Mountain State Justice accuses the board, as well as the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, of ignoring dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries that could have been prevented by installing proximity devices previously.

Caitlin O'Dell -- whose husband, Steven, was killed in a mining accident in November 2012 -- is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. She attended Thursday's meeting at the Charleston Civic Center, and said that she left disappointed, again.

"[Board members] continue to postpone rulemaking that would mandate proximity detection on all mobile mining equipment," O'Dell said after the meeting. "There is no time to waste on this issue. Lives are at stake on a daily basis. The board fails to recognize that delaying another day could result in another fatality."

Steven O'Dell was killed when he was pinned by a battery-operated scoop -- the kind of equipment that would not be required to have proximity devices under the proposed rule.

The board is made up of three coal industry representatives and three United Mine Workers representatives, making tie votes a recurring problem. A seventh, tie-breaking member of the board was eliminated by state legislators.

UMW President Cecil Roberts said he supports the proposal. "I am pleased that West Virginia has taken this important first step in better protecting miners," Roberts said in a statement. "Several fatalities and dozens of severe injuries a year can be prevented by proximity detection devices. West Virginia is once again leading the way for the entire nation in improving mine safety."

Unlike previous meetings where board members worked on the proximity devices proposal, members of the public at the meeting were not given copies of the proposal. When an attendee asked for a copy, board members went into a closed-door session with their lawyer, and then did not provide a copy of the proposal.

O'Dell said she was "extremely frustrated" that she and other members of the public, including a Gazette reporter, were told to leave the room during the session.

The board called a second closed-door session later in the meeting to discuss the Mountain State Justice lawsuit. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who represents the board, has asked the Supreme Court to dismiss the case.

Two assistant attorneys general at the meeting did not say anything about the case publicly Thursday. Morrisey spokeswoman Beth Ryan said after the meeting, "We were seeking to dismiss it [the lawsuit] on a technicality. ... But we can't say anything about the case, because we are representing a client. We are representing the board."

Board members also heard a state report about the death of Roger R. King, who had worked 42 years in the mines. King, 60, died in an accident at a mine operated by McElroy Coal Co. on Oct. 4.

After a rope -- about an inch thick and 80 feet long -- broke, a metallic piece of the mechanism pulling a machine struck King in the head. The state's investigators said it was "very predictable."

The board's next meeting is scheduled for Feb. 24.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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