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MSHA says changes would help rescue response




CHARLESTON, W.Va.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has announced proposals it says will improve rescue operations at the nation’s 653 underground coal mines, in part by cutting maximum emergency response times in half.

The agency published two proposed regulations in the Federal Register last week aimed at complying with a federal law passed last year in the wake of an explosion that killed 12 West Virginia miners.

The proposed rules would require rescuers to reach underground coal mines within one hour. The current rule is two hours.

Rescue teams also would have to be certified, familiar with a mine’s workings and participate in two local mine rescue contests a year. Rescue team members also would have to have at least three years of underground experience and undergo 64 hours or training a year. The current requirement is 40 hours per year.

Mine operators would be required to have two certified mine rescue teams per mine and have a person knowledgeable about mine rescue procedures on each shift.

MSHA’s proposals represent a “large change” from current operations, said Phil Smith with the United Mine Workers.

“A lot of mines, and we saw this at Sago, they didn’t have their own mine rescue teams,” Smith said. Mining companies also didn’t participate in contests that test rescue skills, he said.

Proposed rules regarding equipment would apply to all the nation’s mines, whether they mine coal or not. Mines would have to stock additional gear to bolster rescuers’ oxygen supplies and improve their ability to detect dangerous underground gases and communicate with the surface.

MSHA said its proposal would raise the number of mine rescue stations – centralized storage areas for rescue equipment – from 92 to 120.

“The timely arrival of a properly trained mine rescue team can sometimes mean the difference between life and death,” the agency said.

Interest in emergency response was spurred by the January 2006 explosion at West Virginia’s Sago Mine that left 12 miners dead. It was renewed with the recent death of six miners and three rescue workers at the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah.

The MSHA proposals were called for in last year’s federal Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act.

“It’s certainly a step in the right direction,” Smith said. “We’re pleased to see that MSHA is moving forward.”

The agency predicts the changes would cost the nation’s coal industry about $3.3 million a year to comply. Non-coal mines, affected only by the equipment proposal, would have to pay only about another $130,000 a year, MSHA estimates.

The National Mining Association industry group, which supports the changes, predicts that federal safety laws will require the creation of 40 new mine rescue teams.

In West Virginia, the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training is equipping and training two new rescue teams drawn from the ranks of its inspectors. Once they’re fully trained, the agency will have four teams, a goal set following the Sago explosion.

MSHA will hold four public hearings on its proposals: Oct. 23, Salt Lake City; Oct. 25, Lexington, Ky.; Oct. 30, Charleston, W.Va.; and Nov. 1, Birmingham, Ala. The agency will accept public comment until Nov. 9.


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