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MSHA finalizes belt-air, refuge chamber rules

On the eve of a congressional deadline, Labor Department officials have finalized new rules governing coal-mine refuge chambers and the use of conveyor belt tunnels to ventilate underground mines. Read the rules

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration submitted the rules for publication in today's Federal Register, after receiving final approval from the White House Office of Management and Budget on Dec. 19.

Both rules were required to be finalized by Dec. 31 under the 2006 MINER Act, passed after the deaths of 19 miners in the Sago and Darby mine disasters and the Aracoma Mine fire.

MSHA wrote the rules based on separate, congressionally mandated studies, one of mine refuge chambers by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and another of "belt air" and related issues by a task force of engineering and mine safety experts.

The new "refuge alternatives" rule, as MSHA calls it, requires mine operators to install prefabricated units or build in-mine refuge areas "in a secure space with an isolated atmosphere."

"This final rule will help reassure coal miners that, should a mine emergency occur that prevents them from escaping, they will have a protected, secure area to sustain them while they await rescue," said acting MSHA chief Richard Stickler.

Manchin administration officials have threatened to sue MSHA over the refuge chamber rules, because of several requirements that conflict with West Virginia's 2006 refuge chamber law.

But MSHA said that operators can continue to use units approved under West Virginia's rules for 10 years or until they are replaced, whichever comes first. MSHA said it drafted the new federal rules "to minimize conflict" with the West Virginia law and a separate requirement in Illinois.

In the conveyor belt rule, MSHA will require a phase-out of existing belts to equipment that is more flame resistant than those currently being used, with all existing belts being replaced within 10 years. The rule also requires improved belt maintenance, standardized evacuation and emergency gear signs, and installation of smoke sensors in addition to carbon monoxide monitors in underground working sections.

But MSHA rejected demands from the United Mine Workers union and congressional leaders that agency officials halt the use of conveyor belt tunnels to bring fresh air into underground mines.

"MSHA believes that the use of air from the belt entry to ventilate working sections can be made as safe as not using such air," MSHA said in a Federal Register notice. "Conditions such as high methane levels and deep ground cover can present serious safety concerns to miners. The use of air from the belt entry in these circumstances may result in a safer mine environment."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com

or 304-348-1702.


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