CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As the second anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster approaches, attention remains focused on the ongoing criminal investigation and congressional inaction on mine safety reforms.
But some coal operators -- pushed in part by a U.S. Justice Department deal -- are quietly moving forward to use much more advanced devices to provide real-time monitoring of the levels of explosive coal dust in their underground mines.
Alpha Natural Resources agreed to install the devices as part of an agreement with U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin to resolve any potential criminal liability for the Upper Big Branch explosion.
Last week, lawmakers in Washington learned that the devices are available commercially, ready for use as a compliance tool, and being used by other coal companies, including CONSOL Energy and Patriot Coal.
But United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said that the entire industry is not going to adopt the "explosibility" meters unless the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration or Congress makes them.
"This equipment can provide immediate, real-time information about the incombustibility of rock dust to coal dust levels," Roberts told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. "While better and newer dust explosibility meters exist, most operators -- as well as MSHA -- are not purchasing them because they are not required to use them."
Twenty-nine miners died in the April 5, 2010, explosion at Upper Big Branch. It was the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.
At Upper Big Branch, four investigations found that a crucial problem was mine operator Massey Energy's failure to spread adequate amounts of crushed limestone, or rock dust, to keep coal dust from exploding.