Coal industry lazy no more: West Virginia official

CLAIMS the West Virginia coal industry is complacent, bathing in its own success and not devoting enough attention to safety are no longer true, an industry official told the US Congress last week as he reviewed the state’s progress in mine safety since the Alma and Sago disasters.

Donna Schmidt

West Virginia Coal Association senior vice-president Chris Hamilton told the Subcommittee on Labor, Health, Human Services and Education of the US Senate Appropriations Committee that the Sago and Alma incidents of early 2006 continue to serve as a constant reminder of the “quest” of the mining community and motivation to move forward.

“It was said at one of the many forums on mine safety held throughout this past year that ‘the industry was a victim of its own success and, consequently, became somewhat complacent’ and as such did not devote an equal amount of attention to the post-accident side of safety. That has now changed,” Hamilton said.

He said that the commitment received from all sides of the mining industry had made the progression that much more significant.

“We witnessed an unprecedented level of cooperation from all involved parties and stakeholders from around the industry,” he said.

“Coal management, workers, legislators, government leaders, academicians and researchers came together and exhibited a tremendous desire to develop workable solutions to achieve our shared goal of improving mine safety so that every miner returns home safely every day to his family and home.”

It was that pledge, he noted, that resulted in the development of some of the State and Federal governments’ legislation and proposals for future rulings.

“Over the course of the last 12 months, the industry has kept that commitment and has dedicated endless resources and countless man-hours to the many processes and forums underway designed to improve coal mine safety,” Hamilton said.

“We have opened up our mining operations and have assisted the vendor and research communities in the design, installation and testing of mine communications and individual miner tracking systems and other mine safety technologies.”

West Virginia led that charge with the enactment of SB 247, which encompassed regulations for an immediate accident notification system, wireless communications, self-contained self-rescuers, preparedness plans, lifelines, tracking and training/retraining. It was SB 247, Hamilton said, that paved the way for the federal MINER Act that would be signed in June of last year.

Other areas of progress within the state’s industry include banning of certain seal material for the state’s mines and the formation of two new state mine rescue teams, one for northern coal fields and one for the southern regions.

In addition to increasing numbers of SCSRs throughout the state’s mines, Hamilton said that every operation has revamped its plans for mine rescue and general preparedness.

The focus lies now with SB 68, which is now making its way through West Virginia’s state legislature with an existing Senate approval and pending action by the House in the coming week.

Hamilton said the Bill will address the design, construction, remediation and examination of mine seals, establishes protections for belt air use, establishes violation patterns, complies with the Mine Safety and Technology Task Force code, and allows for underground mine foreman/fireboss continuing education opportunities.

While other focuses in the past year have looked at mine rescue and other post-incident factors, the Bill the WVCA is working on with state Governor Joe Manchin and the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training looks forward more towards accident prevention. An example of this from the Bill includes a sanction that would permit the Director of Mines to close any mine whose conditions warrant it idled.

“The current change requires a mine to have a history of repeated S&S violations caused by unwarrantable failure which demonstrates a disregard for miner health or safety,” Hamilton said.

Additionally, new rules will outline a four-pronged requirement for underground foreman/fireboss education, including eight hours of continuing education hours, the addition of all changes in state mining laws to the program which the individual is completing, allowing for potential approval of alternative training programs designed by mine operators, and the empowerment to have individuals who have not completed a refresher program to be placed on indefinite suspension.

Despite the challenges brought forth by technology and regulatory conflicts, the industry is taking significant steps to bolster mine safety efforts.

“We affirm our pledge and commitment today as we move to implement measures enacted last year and strive to develop a greater level of preventive measures and improved mine safety,” Hamilton said.

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