Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Story Behind The Latest Mine Deaths: Bush Regulations To Blame?

As usual, the Charleston Gazette's Ken Ward -- a one man truth squad -- has the inside story of the mine fire that killed two West Virginia miners -- Don I. Bragg, 33, of Accoville, and Ellery "Elvis" Hatfield, 47.

I've already written about the Bush administration's withdrawal of a regulation that would have required underground coal mines to use improved flame-resistant materials on the type of conveyor belts that caused the fire in the Aracoma No. 1 mine. Ward reports today of another Bush era regulation that may have helped underground coal-mine fires spread. The rule, adopted by MSHA with strong support of the mine industry, allowed mines to use the conveyor belt --the same area where the fire broke out -- to draw fresh air to the working face where coal is actually mined. This arrangement, which had previously been illegal, could help carry flames and deadly gases directly to the miners’ work area, or to vital evacuation routes.

Davit McAteer, who headed OSHA during the Clinton administration had resisted this change, as had the Mineworkers union, but MSHA ignored these concerns.

Mines are complicated things, with elaborate ventilation systems and numerious passageways.

Entries are used for various purposes: Some for tracks that run vehicles in and out of the mine, others for fresh-air intakes, for bad-air returns or for conveyor belts that haul coal to the surface.

When Congress wrote the 1969 federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, lawmakers specifically stated that “belt entries” and “intake air courses” must be separate.

In its report on the legislation, the Senate said, “The objective of the section is to reduce high air velocities ... in belt haulage-ways where the coal is transported because such velocities fan and propagate mine fines, many of which originate along the haulage-ways.

“Rapid intake air currents also carry products of the fire to the working places quickly before the men know of the fire and lessen their time for escape,” the Senate report said. “If they use the return air-courses to escape, the air coursed through may contain these products and quickly overtake them.”

(Read this informative essay that appeared in Daily Kos by someone who works in the mine industry for an idea of how mines work.)

Despite MSHA's initial denials, the Aracoma mine had obtained MSHA approval for using the conveyor belt to draw fresh air into the mine.

As usual, the motivation behind MSHA's action to make it easier to get approval for these changes was based on the coal industry's desire to cut costs. The coal industry felt the the original process of petitioning the agency for such changes in mine design was to burdensome. MSHA proposed such a change in 1988, but it was so controversial that it didn't go anywhere until...
it was revived in January 2003 by Dave Lauriski, a longtime coal industry executive appointed by President Bush to run MSHA. When Lauriski proposed the change, MSHA officials argued that they were going along with recommendations from the agency’s earlier review and the advisory committee report.

In public comments on the proposal, UMW safety officer James Lamont argued that MSHA ignored contrary advice from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Lamont noted that NIOSH officials previously expressed concern that using belt entries as air intakes would push coal dust toward workers at the mine face.

Also, Lamont cited previous NIOSH comments that, “the practice of ventilating with belt air at any velocity is unsafe and unhealthy.” NIOSH also warned that “the use of high velocities would increase fire and explosion hazards from coal dust.”

Among those who commented in favor of the MSHA rule change was Kevin Tuttle, manager of health, safety and training for the Deer Creek Mine, owned by Lauriski’s former company, Energy West Mining.

In its comments, the National Mining Association said the rule, “once finalized and implemented, will reduce the administrative and paperwork burdens on both the industry and agency while enhancing the safety and health for miners where belt air ventilation is utilized.”

Dennis O’Dell, the UMW’s national safety director, said Friday the move toward using belt entries as air intakes is driven by the need for coal companies to more quickly develop mining sections for longwall machines, like the one used at the Aracoma Mine. If operators cannot use the belt entry to suck fresh air into the mine, they have to build another entry. That takes time and money.

“[The Aracoma fire] is exactly why you don’t want to do this,” O’Dell said. “The fire and the gases and the carbon monoxide go right to where the workers are.”

Joe Main, then the UMW’s top safety official, noted during the comment period that NIOSH also had said, “Belt-air usage represents the least expensive method of increasing ventilation to the face — not the best for worker health and safety.”
An old story -- regulated industry pressues Bush administration to relax "costly" and "burdensome" workplace safety and health rules. The only thing new here is that the truth is coming out before the workers have been laid to rest.

More 2006 Mine Disaster Stories