Federal regulators are issuing a final set of rules for underground coal mine examinations that aim to hold operators more accountable for finding and fixing dangerous conditions — and preventing the deaths of their workers.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration proposed the rules in December 2010, months after the Upper Big Branch mine explosion killed 29 West Virginia miners. The rules will be published in the Federal Register on Friday, the day after the second anniversary of the blast at the former Massey Energy mine. They go into effect Aug. 6.
The rules require operators to identify and correct nine hazardous conditions and violations of health and safety standards that MSHA says pose the greatest risk to miners. Those standards relate to things that were problems at Upper Big Branch, including ventilation, methane, roof control and accumulation of combustible materials.
Congress and federal law have “made it quite clear that it’s a mine operator’s responsibility to find and fix problems,” director Joe Main said Tuesday, “and MSHA was supposed to be there checking if they do.”
He called the final rule “very strategic and focused” on the problems most often linked to mining deaths and said it should help coal companies do that job better.
But at one of five public hearings last summer, the industry criticized the rules.
State regulators from West Virginia and Illinois, the West Virginia Coal Association and Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources — which now owns Upper Big Branch — all urged MSHA to drop some requirements.
Although specially certified miners conduct preshift and on-shift safety examinations, the coal association argued they’re not trained to know federal regulations and shouldn’t be asked to perform the job of a federal inspector.
“Whose responsibility is it to do routine examinations of the mines? It’s the mine operators’ responsibility. The law requires it,” Main said. “… They’re there all the time, and we’re not.”
Only the United Mine Workers of America backed the changes, saying they would eliminate judgment calls on whether a condition is hazardous.
Main said the need for tougher rules is clear.
Online: Final MSHA rule: 1.usa.gov/HKsJOn