NMA cautions US congress on coal mine safety

The accomplishments of the American coal industry under the new Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act of 2006 have been remarkable in view of the relatively brief period the regulations have been in place. But because the year-old federal mine safety law is not yet fully implemented, additional requirements at this time would be premature and possibly counterproductive, said the National Mining Association (NMA) in a statement filed with the House Subcommittee on Workplace Protections.

NMA said that until the MINER Act is fully implemented and its effectiveness assessed, additional requirements in pending legislation will only slow, and could possibly reverse, current mine safety improvements.

The NMA statement said that "diverting attention and resources away from the critical task of fulfilling the mandates of the MINER Act — just to respond to an additional layer of statutory requirements — could ultimately undermine the progress that has been made on miner training and other vital objectives of the act."

NMA called attention to a July 25 letter to the chairman and the ranking member of the House Committee on Education and Labor by 11 leading academics in the field of mining engineering that echoed NMA’s view. "While there may be other safety and health issues that should be addressed in the future," said the letter, "in our opinion now is not the right time to pursue as much as is proposed in the pending bill."

NMA said a partial list of industry accomplishments in response to the MINER Act would include:

  • 86,000 new self-contained self-rescuers (SCSR) have been placed into service in the last 12 months and more than 100,000 will be added in the coming months
  • All 55,000 underground coal miners have and will continue to receive quarterly training on the donning and use of SCSRs
  • With the recent approval of expectation training units, all miners will begin to receive annual training with units that imitate the resistance and heat generation of actual models
  • Mines have installed lifelines in both their primary and secondary escape-ways and emergency tethers have been provided to permit escaping miners to link together
  • Underground coal mines have implemented systems to track miners while underground; underground coal mines have also installed redundant communication systems, and new systems to provide post-accident communication continue to be tested
  • All 550 underground coal mines have submitted plans to provide post-accident breathable air to sustain miners that are unable to escape and await rescue
  • Thirty-six new mine rescue teams have been added or are in the planning stages, even before MSHA initiates the rulemaking required by the act;

These steps and others taken beyond the requirements of the MINER Act have resulted in a safety investment of approximately $250 million for NMA member companies alone. Even before the enactment of the MINER Act, NMA and its members engaged the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in a mine emergency communications partnership.

NMA members have volunteered their mines for testing tracking and communications systems. Some of these technologies hold great promise; however they are some years away from readiness for mine application.

Beyond the actions taken by the industry to comply with federal and state rules, the industry has undertaken several voluntary initiatives. For example, working with the industry’s communication specialists, NMA is developing a protocol for communications with the media during a mining crisis. The protocol will provide a framework for effective communications and cooperation with MSHA, as envisioned by the MINER Act.

As a result of these and other accomplishments, a sharp drop in reported injuries and fatalities has put the industry on track to achieve annual improvements in coal mine safely.

But this progress could be disrupted, said NMA, if additional provisions contained in House legislation were to be imposed on mine safety professionals and mine operators still struggling to implement all of the requirements of the comprehensive new safety law enacted last summer.

NMA specifically objected to new standards proposed in the supplemental legislation for barriers designed to seal off closed sections of a mine. The standards conflict with state requirements, creating chaos for federal and state agencies, and forcing one mine to build three sets of seals to three different specifications.

Other proposals in supplemental legislation that are unlikely to improve mine safety include:

  • Shortened deadlines for the installation of communications technologies and devices that are unproven and unavailable
  • Changes to proven standards-setting procedures that undermine established protocols for ensuring that products used in mines are safe
  • Impractical, arbitrary and unnecessary notification procedures
  • Outlawing the use of belt air to ventilate deep mines, thus increasing safety hazards from a reliance on additional entry ways for ventilation.

Moreover, the supplemental legislation mysteriously fails to include common-sense measures that are likely to further improve mine safety. NMA highlighted two examples. The first is a requirement for mandatory substance abuse testing — "a glaring omission that must be addressed," and, a requirement that MSHA’s database of actual reported safety incidents be the chief criterion for allocating inspection activity, rather than continued reliance on arbitrary, subjective and ambiguous criteria.

"The industry is committed to full implementation of the MINER Act and to analyze further statutory needs once its full effect on mine safety can be assessed," said NMA.