Sunday Forum: Mine mania
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Few countries rely on coal more than the United States, and few states mine more coal than Pennsylvania. As a result, ensuring the safety of our coal miners, especially those who work under ground, is among the most challenging and urgent tasks in the American workplace.
R. Larry Grayson is a professor of energy and mineral engineering and the George H. Jr. and Anne B. Deike chair in mining engineering at Pennsylvania State University (email@example.com).
The urgency of the task was sadly reinforced by the mine tragedies early last year in the coalfields of Appalachia that claimed the lives of 19 miners. While coal-mining communities dealt with their grief, mine operators, government regulators and other safety professionals set about determining why those fatalities occurred in light of the strong safety record that had characterized U.S. mining for much of the past decade.
In the months following these accidents, the entire mining community engaged in a multi-state effort to identify practical steps that should be taken to prevent such tragedies from occurring again. Fortunately, many of the improvements suggested for mine rescue, technology and training were included in a comprehensive mine-safety law Congress passed last summer.
The Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 was overwhelmingly endorsed by members of Congress from both parties and supported by mine-safety professionals, mine operators and miners, as well as by occupational health professionals and developers of safety technology. The new mine-safety law calls on the nation's coal mines to adopt certain measures immediately and other procedures and safety technologies as soon as needed tests are completed and new equipment becomes commercially available.
But barely a year into our experience with this new law -- implementing its many provisions, ordering and installing new safety equipment and training miners in new safety procedures -- government agencies, safety professionals and the miners doing the work face an unexpected complication that threatens to undermine the MINER Act's goals. Proposals now before Congress would impose entirely new requirements on coal-mine operators and mine inspectors that would greatly disrupt the important focus on implementing the emergency rescue provisions of the MINER Act.
Since passage of the MINER Act, a dramatic turnaround in mining fatalities in 2007 appears to have put us back on track to achieve significant year-over-year improvements in mine safety. But without full implementation of the MINER Act provisions, this year's improved performance could prove ephemeral.
Further experience with the MINER Act may yet determine that adjustments are needed. We may learn that alternative equipment and training procedures could yield even better results than those now in use. But we do not know that yet, and we won't know until we have had sufficient experience with the new training procedures, equipment and mining practices the act requires.
The MINER Act is not perfect, but it mandates a comprehensive range of practices that are making a difference. Putting all of its provisions in place at all of the nation's 550 underground coal mines has been a major undertaking. Operators are trying to implement some provisions before federal regulators have issued regulations for them. Still other provisions are disputed by federal and state regulators who disagree on standards and specifications.
The result has been chaos for federal and state agencies, safety professionals and the miners who are trying to implement the law. For example, to isolate abandoned mine sections that could pose safety hazards, one mine's workforce has been forced to build three sets of seals to three different specifications.
It surprises no one that many experienced inspectors, mine managers and supervisors are leaving the industry, exacerbating an already critical shortage of mining industry personnel.
Complying with the MINER Act is not the only challenge the industry faces. The mine tragedies last year also spurred many good operators to take voluntary steps to improve mine safety. Many of these steps were recommended by an independent Mine Safety Technology and Training Commission that I chaired last year.
Once adopted, these voluntary measures undoubtedly will improve the safety of coal miners beyond the level prescribed by the MINER Act, thereby setting the high standard of safety performance desired by good people throughout the industry. Additional legislation now would not only intensify the chaos in the coal fields, but also would stifle incentives to adopt these voluntary steps, which are essential for a truly new paradigm of mine safety based on prevention and risk management.
Let's not jeopardize the effective implementation of the MINER Act. Achieving the act's goals is far too important for the protection of miners, especially during emergencies.
Congress has time to carefully consider additional health and safety issues with the participation of everyone involved, but all of the stakeholders currently pursuing good-faith efforts should not be distracted from the urgent work before them.
First Published July 20, 2007 5:20 pm