Whitesburg KY

MSHA issues final rule on underground seals


The nation’s coal operators have six months to submit plans for complying with new federal requirements covering stronger seals and increased monitoring to ward off explosions in underground mines.

The changes stem from a Jan. 2, 2006, methane gas explosion at West Virginia’s Sago Mine that resulted in the deaths of 12 miners, and from a May 20, 2006, explosion at the Darby Mine No. 1 in Harlan County, Ky., that killed five.

Both explosions occurred in sealed sections of the mines.

On April 18, the Mine Safety and Health Administration published final rules that require underground seals to withstand pressures of at least 50 pounds per square inch. The old standard was 20 psi, but MSHA imposed the 50 psi standard last year on an emergency basis.

Mine operators also must monitor for explosive gases in sealed-off areas, but only if seals can’t withstand forces of up to 120 psi. If an explosive condition is discovered, miners must be withdrawn from the work area or the mine.

Monitoring is not required for seals built to withstand forces of 120 psi or greater.

United Mine Workers spokesman Phil Smith said the union was generally pleased with the final rules.

“Miners will be afforded a much great level of protection than they were before,” he said.

MSHA determined that the Sago explosion was at least 93 psi. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers review later indicated the explosion exceeded 629 psi in some areas.

Smith said mine seals will “actually be much stronger” than 50 psi because the industry will be motivated to build stronger seals so they don’t have to monitor mined out areas.

The union had pushed for the 120 psi in unmonitored areas where there is little likelihood of explosion; and 50 psi for seals that are monitored and where methane is controlled.

MSHA’s rule also requires operators to remove potential ignition sources from sealed areas, increase training on the construction and monitoring of seals, and use certified supervisors to monitor seals, design certifications and improve record keeping to ensure compliance.

Luke Popovich with the National Mining Association said the final rule seems to be stricter than what MSHA proposed but it appears agency inspectors have been given some flexibility on enforcement.

“This gives the field personnel _ those with the best understanding of conditions at each mine _ the discretion to implement the rule to best serve miners at each operation,” he said in a statement. “Whether they use that flexibility is of course another question.”

Last year, MSHA said its rule would affect about 372 of the nation’s 670 underground coal mines. MSHA has estimated those mines will pay $39.7 million annually to meet the new requirements.

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