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OSM, MSHA reject call for new safety rules

The Bush administration on Friday rejected recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences for new coal waste impoundment safety regulations.

In a report to Congress, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement said that regulations recommended in an October 2001 report by the academy’s National Research Council were not needed.

Instead, MSHA and OSM said, they would continue site-specific reviews of impoundment plans prepared by coal company engineers.

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On Friday, the two agencies gave lawmakers an update on their response to the research council report. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., wrote legislation that required the report after MSHA and OSM announced no actions to follow up on the council recommendations.

In 2000, Congress requested the council’s study of the safety of coal company dams. Reps. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., and Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., provided $2 million for the study after the failure of a coal waste impoundment in Martin County, Ky.

In its study, the council recommended that OSM and MSHA write rules to specify the amount of rock or earth barriers required between impoundment basins and nearby underground mines.

At Martin County, a Massey Energy impoundment broke through into an adjacent mine, flooding the mine and pouring polluted mine waste into nearby streams.

MSHA and OSM said that specific barrier requirements are not necessary, and aren’t a good idea anyway. In their report to Congress, the agencies said the needed barrier width and thickness “depend heavily on the site-specific geologic conditions, the proposed loading to be applied, and on any mitigating design features.”

“Since each site is unique, the ‘minimum standards’ should be for the engineering evaluation performed to identify and prevent potential failure modes, rather than for universally applied practices or procedures that may be overly conservative in some cases and potentially unsafe in others,” the report said.

OSM and MSHA also rejected a recommendation that the agencies “develop and promulgate guidelines for the site evaluation, design, construction and operation of basins.”

In their report, the agencies stated that these evaluations are “prepared by coal companies or their engineering consultants.”

“The role of MSHA, OSM or the state regulatory authority is to review the plans for consistency with prudent engineering practice,” the report said.

MSHA and OSM also rejected the formation of a “formal joint review” of impoundment proposals that the council said “would coordinate the currently fragmented and inefficient collection of reviews into a single process.”

“MSHA and OSM believe that an overhaul of the existing system for reviewing plans or permits is not necessary and not practical,” the report to Congress said. “Coordination between MSHA and OSM and the state regulatory authority is provided in the regulations.”


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