2 W.Va. legislators sponsor bill to ban mine conveyor-belt vents
Share with others:
One year after a fatal belt fire killed two coal miners at West Virginia's Aracoma Mine, two congressmen say they want to ban the use conveyor belt mine entries as a means to ventilate underground working areas.
Democratic Reps. Nick Rahall and Alan Mollohan, of West Virginia, yesterday introduced a bill calling for the ban yesterday, the one-year anniversary of the fire in which Donald Bragg, 33, and Ellery "Elvis" Hatfield, 46, died of smoke inhalation after becoming separated from their crew.
The fire at Aracoma's Alma Mine No. 1 on Jan. 19, 2006 started at a conveyor belt used to take coal to the surface.
"The use of the belt entry to ventilate mines, as was the case at Aracoma, is egregiously dangerous," said Mr. Rahall, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, in a release.
The one-paragraph bill directs the U.S. Secretary of Labor to revise mine safety regulations "to require, in any coal mine, regardless of the date on which it was opened, that belt haulage entries not be used to ventilate active working places."
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts praised the legislation as "a tremendous step in the right direction for making our nation's mines safer workplaces.
"Belt air is a killer, as was so tragically demonstrated once again at the Aracoma Alma disaster," he said.
But Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association representing coal industry interests, said yesterday they oppose the bill because "banning the use of belt air as a ventilation system doesn't correlate to better mine safety. Dozens of mines have safely used belt air as a ventilation system."
Historically, federal mine laws prohibited using belt air to ventilate because of the possible health and safety risks posed to miners from coal dust or fire. About 15 years ago, Mine Safety and Health Administration officials began allowing mines to petition for an exemption and eventually the use of belt air to ventilate became more and more prevalent.
In June 2004, the administration began allowing general use of belt air to ventilate as long as mine operators enhanced air monitoring and fire suppression equipment. The mine workers' union went to court in an unsuccessful attempt to block the that ruling.
At Aracoma, investigators found that coal had been allowed to accumulate near the belts and that walls meant to properly direct airflow had been removed before the fire broke out.
The incident "demonstrates how deteriorating mine safety policies at MSHA have combined with insufficient numbers of inspectors and lax enforcement to intensify the dangers associated with the use of belt entry air," according to the release from Mr. Rahall's office.
"The fact that MSHA has failed to withdraw the 2004 rule demonstrates to me that the agency is still not putting its duty to protect miners above the profits of the industry," Mr. Rahall said. "If MSHA will not act to correct its mistakes, then the Congress must."
Eleven days ago, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration convened a new six-member Belt Advisory Committee to look at the dual use of entries to convey coal and to bring fresh air to underground areas where miners are working.
The review is required under provisions of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 passed into law in June. The group is expected to issue recommendations about using belt air to ventilate, but not for several months.
Yesterday, advisory committee chairman Jan Mutmansky, a Penn State mining engineering professor, declined to comment on the new legislation other than to say "it will not affect our work."
First Published January 20, 2007 12:00 am