Monday, October 31, 2011

Mine-safety chief says safety crackdown isn't keeping the coal industry from expanding

After 29 underground coal miners died in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in West Virginia last year, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration started a program of "safety blitzes" in which inspectors showed up at mines unannounced and disabled internal telephone lines so advance warning couldn't be sent underground. These efforts were led by MSHA Administrator Joe Main, above, a former miner and United Mine Workers safety director who told The Associated Press that the crackdown hasn't kept the industry from expanding. (AP photo by Harry Hamburg)

Since April 2010, the agency has found over 4,000 safety violations and temporary closed 427 mines. The industry dealt with the highest number of mining-related deaths in 40 years in 2010; this year, it's on track for record low injuries and deaths. As Main told the The Courier-Journal's Jim Carroll, the safety blitzes are "the best foundation for mine safety in this country."

Main told the Louisville newspaper that the safety blitzes have become routine since last year and have allowed the agency to identify problem mines that "were not on the watch list" before the Upper Big Branch disaster. Mines with the worst safety records are being targeted, and while some of the operators understand the severity of the violations, some don't, Main said. He added that those who do understand are finding problems and fixing them before MSHA inspectors show up; those who leave safety problems unchecked could face closure until the problems are addressed.

Carroll reports Main split up the MSHA district that oversaw Upper Big Branch because it was responsible for the largest number of mining operations in the country. The agency has been looking for patterns of violations since last year, and started a database accessible by the public that compares mine safety records to criteria that determines "pattern of violations" designations. If a mine is assigned this designation, and the problems aren't addressed, it could be closed. MSHA is working on new pattern-of-violation rules that would stop the practice of sending warning letters to operators which allowed them to skirt inspections in the past. The agency is also trying to streamline appeals of citations, which used to allow operators to avoid the designation because the process was so lengthy.

MSHA is also proposing simplified safety standards that would allow inspectors to quickly target problem mines and is holding public hearings to discuss installation of shut-off and warning devices on continuous-mining machines, which have caused the most common underground mining accidents in recent decades: crushing deaths and injuries. Main has championed stricter coal-dust rules that will require miners to carry dust monitors displaying dangerous levels of dust.

National Mining Association spokeswoman Carol Raulston told Carroll the industry has opposed this rule based on an analysis commissioned by the association. She said "data to support health improvements based on the levels MSHA has proposed" does not exist. Despite the announcement that the new rule will go into effect in April, the industry has requested MSHA withdraw it and draft a new one.

Carroll writes that mine safety advocates, like Democratic Rep. George Miller of California, are praising Main's decision to use "enforcement tools MSHA was given in the late 1970s but had never employed" to hold the industry accountable. UMW president Cecil Roberts told Carroll that Main has initiated "significant progress" in mine safety, and former Kentucky state and federal mine-safety official Tony Oppegard said Main "deserves a lot of credit" for refusing to help protect "buddies" in the industry and said Main's career was built upon protecting miners' safety and health. Raulston declined to talk with Carroll about Main specifically, but told him it's "every mine's responsibility to abide by the rules and regulations." (Read more)

No comments: