New Federal Safety Rules for Mines Finalized

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 pre-shift 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. Despite the high-profile Upper Big Branch disaster, his inspectors keep seeing the same kind of violations year after year.

Underground coal mines account for just 4 percent of the operations MSHA monitors, but in fiscal year 2010, the agency issued 80,000 violations at them — nearly half of the total 173,000 violations.

Main said those figures show mine operators need to step up.

The new rules require operators to not only examine their mines for dangerous conditions but also to record the actions taken to correct them. They also must do quarterly reviews with mine examiners on citations and orders issued in areas where pre-shift, supplemental, on-shift and weekly examinations are required.

Main said that puts operators in a proactive rather than reactive stance.

“You either change the way you do business and fix the problem,” he said, “or you keep doing what you’ve been doing to get the results you’re getting.”

Late last week, the National Mining Association’s board of directors endorsed its own new program to encourage workplace safety, with the goal of ending fatalities within five years and reducing injury rates by 50 percent. Among the dozens of companies participating is Alpha.

NMA Chairman Frank McAllister, chief executive of Stillwater Mining, called the CORESafety initiative “an industry essential.”

The association says CORESafety was developed over two years and focuses on preventing accidents.

It stresses continuous improvement in safety and health, NMA says, and shows “the determination and commitment of U.S. mining leaders to remain a model for the world.”