Under the change announced Tuesday by MSHA, the incombustible content of dust in all areas of underground mines would have to be at least 80 percent. Higher incombustible percentages would be required where methane is present.
"Coal dust can cause explosions, and explosions kill miners," said Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. "Compliance with the new standard will strengthen the protection for miners by minimizing the potential for such an explosion and, ultimately, will save lives."
MSHA issued its new rule as an "Emergency Temporary Standard," allowed under federal law only when the agency determines that miners are at "grave danger." MSHA can temporarily avoid public comment and hearings, but must begin that process now and issue a final rule within nine months. Congress gave MSHA authority for such emergency rules in 1977, and the agency has taken that rulemaking route only four times since.
"Explosions caused by coal dust are particularly violent and deadly," said MSHA Secretary Joe Main. "We know that it will take mine operators a little bit of time to bring their mines into compliance with the new standard, but coal dust explosions are serious, and we expect mine operators to act quickly to reduce the threat to those mining coal underground."
Officials from the National Mining Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
In its rulemaking announcement, MSHA said that the change would cost the nation's 415 underground coal mines a total of $22 million a year for additional rock dust and for employee time applying that rock dust. The agency noted that six coal dust explosions killed 46 miners over the last 26 years, or an average of two miners per year.
"MSHA acknowledges that the requirements in this ETS probably would not have prevented all of the deaths from the six explosions, and estimates that the ETS would have prevented approximately one to one and a half deaths per year," MSHA said in a Federal Register notice.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.