House leader urges quicker action on mine seal standards

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Federal officials should move more quickly to shore up standards for underground coal mine seals, says a California congressman.

With new research showing the potential for extraordinarily high blast forces in coal mines, the current timetable for finalizing new standards by year's end is not acceptable, said Democratic Rep. George Miller in a letter sent Monday to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao.

Urging Ms. Chao to issue an emergency temporary standard, Mr. Miller said the current rules present "a serious and imminent danger to underground coal miners."

Researchers at the Pittsburgh Research Laboratory of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported last week that blast forces up to 640 pounds per square inch can occur behind sealed sections in mines.

That is more than 30 times greater than the previous federal standard of 20 pounds per square inch in place when a January 2006 explosion and entrapment at West Virginia's Sago mine left 12 men dead.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration in July began requiring new seals to withstand a 50 psi force, while air quality at existing seals must be closely monitored.

Mr. Miller told Ms. Chao that MSHA should issue an emergency rule requiring mine operators to monitor and reduce potentially explosive conditions, or to strengthen the seals.

Taking these steps, he said, "will ensure that mine operators begin to quickly put new safeguards into place, rather than proceeding at a more deliberate pace while miners are in imminent danger."

In response, Richard Stickler, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said in a statement that the agency is still reviewing the NIOSH draft report, as well as other information related to the Sago investigation.

"MSHA is moving forward with rule making to help ensure that sealed abandoned areas do not present hazards to miners," he said.

Mr. Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Education, has promised to hold public hearings to address coal mine safety issues in light of 47 coal mine deaths in 2006, more than double the previous year's total.

In the two worst incidents, at Sago and at Kentucky's Darby mine, methane explosions blew out seals that had been built to close off portions of the mines.

That prompted federal officials to order a study of explosive forces on mine seals

The NIOSH draft report recommends a three-tier standard based on its findings: 640 psi for unmonitored mine seals in blast-prone areas; 120 psi in unmonitored areas where blasts are considered unlikely; and 50 psi where the sealed area is drained of explosive methane or rendered inert.

The report is now circulating among engineers, mine operators and others during a 30-day public comment period.


Steve Twedt can be reached at stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963.


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