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Report: W.Va. Fails To Enforce New Regs Designed To Prevent Mine Explosions

Feb 4, 2013

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Howard Berkes

Ken Ward at The Charleston Gazette has a story worth reading about West Virginia's failure to enforce new coal mine dust standards prompted by the deadly explosion three years ago at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine.

Ward used the state's Freedom of Information Act to obtain and review mine safety inspections conducted by the Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training.

"But despite finding hundreds of instances over the last 18 months where mining operations didn't comply with the new standards," Ward reports, the state agency "has not issued even a single citation for violating the dust standards..."

Coal dust explodes when ignited and acts as an accelerant, causing explosions to grow and spread underground. Excessive coal dust was cited as a major factor in the Upper Big Branch explosion, which killed 29 coal miners.

Davitt McAteer, a former federal mine safety chief, conducted an independent investigation of the explosion.

"This dust issue was absolutely the most critical failure" at the mine, McAteer told Ward. "And three years later, there's still not a prevention measure in place to keep it from occurring again."

Ward sat with Eugene White, the director of W.Va.'s mine safety agency, as he scrolled through a spreadsheet describing hundreds of coal dust samples.

As Ward reports, "...there were plenty of mines where the samples were marked as having 'failed' the state's standards. The state's data, though, included no information about citations, enforcement orders or fines."

Ward quotes White saying, "This is still a work in progress. We're working on it."

Two weeks ago, the Gazette reported that state regulators had yet to write rules requiring automatic shutdown of mining machines when sensors detect dangerous levels of methane gas, a natural element in coal mines that is also explosive.

Investigators concluded that the Upper Big Branch explosion began with an ignition of methane gas at a longwall mining machine.

The W.Va. legislature enacted a law nearly a year ago containing the methane shutdown requirement.

Federal mine safety law already includes a similar requirement but the W.Va. measure is tougher, forcing mining machine shutdowns at lower concentrations of methane gas.

Since the 2010 tragedy, federal regulators have conducted monthly surprise inspections of mines with habitual safety problems. They've also called for tougher coal dust standards that more strictly limit the concentrations of dust permitted underground. Coal mine dust also causes the deadly miners disease called black lung.

Mining companies can control coal dust by regular cleaning of mining areas, the use of water sprays on mining machines, ventilation that provides robust airflow, and spreading crushed limestone.

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