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MSHA oxygen rule delayed

A rule to give the nation’s coal miners additional emergency oxygen has been delayed while the White House continues to review it, government officials said this week.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration announced the rule Feb. 7, but has not put it into effect by publishing it in the Federal Register.

MSHA officials submitted their proposal to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget on Feb. 14, a spokesman said. OMB, which must sign off on agency rules, sent the proposal back with comments and questions.

On Tuesday, MSHA officials submitted a revised version. Now, they are again waiting for White House approval to move forward.

Under growing pressure following a series of mining accidents in West Virginia, MSHA said it would implement the oxygen supply rule as a “temporary emergency standard.” Federal law allows MSHA to implement emergency rules only if miners “are exposed to grave danger.”

Since passage of the 1977 mine safety act, MSHA has used this authority only twice. Most recently, the agency used an emergency rule to modify mine evacuation guidelines following the deaths of 13 miners at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine in Alabama in September 2001.

Details of the MSHA oxygen supply plan have not been made public. MSHA spokesman Dirk Fillpot would not discuss his agency’s talks with OMB about the emergency rule.

“That is all something considered part of the deliberative process,” Fillpot said. “You can get the final draft once it’s completed.”

Alex Conant, a spokesman for OMB, said, “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.

“This is a routine part of the process,” Conant said. “We work with agencies all the time.”

In a phone interview, Conant refused to discuss what questions or concerns OMB had about the MSHA rule. Later, he e-mailed a prepared statement in which he said that “MSHA did not make any changes to the rule at [OMB’s] request, nor did the [OMB] staff ask for any.”

MSHA has said that its emergency rule would require lifelines to guide miners safely out of mines, immediate notification by operators of accidents, and additional emergency training for miners.

In West Virginia, Gov. Joe Manchin has already pushed through legislation to require mine operators to install wireless communications and miner tracking devices in all underground coal mines.

Over the last month, industry officials and MSHA have repeatedly questioned whether those devices will work.

Bob Friend, an acting deputy labor secretary for MSHA, continued that effort during a House committee hearing Wednesday in Washington.

Friend told lawmakers it is difficult to operate wireless communications from the surface to miners underground. “There’s a lot of ground over our mines, and it’s difficult to go through that much ground,” he told a House Education and the Workforce subcommittee hearing.

Under questioning from Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y., National Mining Association lobbyist Bruce Watzman also questioned the wireless devices.

“We are not aware of technology that has been perfected that will provide what we would ultimately like to see,” Watzman said.

Owens asked, “Does it have to be perfected?”

“No,” Watzman responded, “But we don’t want to provide a false sense of security.”

In Charleston on Wednesday, experts from MSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health were touting various types of wireless communications equipment they believe can work in underground mines.

These experts said the mine environment — wet, cold and ever-changing — is not ideal for wireless electronic equipment. Also, they said, no such equipment is perfect. There may always be dead spots in some mines, and the devices seem to react differently in different mines.

David Chirdon, an MSHA electrical engineer, said that the agency has narrowed a list of 70 proposals it received to six examples of different technologies.

Some equipment uses a wireless signal similar to common Internet connections, and others use a loop antennae that can be placed on the surface so it is protected from underground fires or explosions. One product is similar to what the U.S. military is using to communicate in the caves of Afghanistan.

“They are extremely promising,” Chirdon said. “These are really cutting edge.”

So far, much of the public attention on wireless mining communications has focused on the Australian-made Personal Emergency Device, or PED.

The PED — which is credited with successful mine evacuations in Utah in 1998 and 2000 — is the only such device approved by MSHA as being safe to use in underground mines. Before equipment can be used underground, MSHA has to be convinced it will not cause fires or explosions.

Steve Luzik, MSHA’s chief of approval and certification, said that is likely to change as companies scramble to meet new requirements like West Virginia’s.

“We’re committed to getting these new technologies underground,” Luzik said. “We have put a policy in place to put these systems ahead of the queue.”

Chirdon and Luzik spoke Wednesday as part of a daylong mine safety forum at the Charleston Civic Center.

At that forum, state officials also announced the toll-free number for West Virginia’s new mine emergency response center. That number is (866) 987-2338.

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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