<\body> Stories in America: Another Sad Day in W. Virginia

Monday, January 23, 2006

Another Sad Day in W. Virginia

I saw a number of television reports this morning about the tragic deaths of another two miners in West Virginia. Not surprisingly, the pieces failed to mention any of the recent changes in mining safety rules, as reported by the Charleston Gazette:
The Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine was operating under a new Bush administration ventilation rule that might help underground coal-mine fires spread, according to government records and interviews.

The ventilation plan also might block crucial emergency escape routes, and expose miners to a greater risk of deadly black lung disease, according to a review of government studies and interviews with mine safety experts over the past two days.

The Alma No. 1 Mine used its conveyor belt -- the area where a deadly fire broke out Thursday night -- to draw fresh air to the working face, the area where coal is actually mined.

When mines are arranged this way, and a fire breaks out on a belt, the belt tunnel can carry flames and deadly gases directly to the miners’ work area, or to vital evacuation routes.

Since at least 1969, such mine layouts were generally illegal. Regulators approved them only on a limited, case-by-case basis, and conditioned upon numerous special safeguards. But in 2004, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration rewrote federal rules to allow widespread use of such ventilation plans. The move gave the coal industry a regulatory change it had sought for more than 15 years, records show.

Davitt McAteer, Gov. Joe Manchin's adviser on mine safety issues, had blocked the change for nearly eight years while he was MSHA chief for the Clinton administration.

"We had major concerns about it," said McAteer, a Marion County native, Friday morning. "If a fire could occur on a belt, that fire and the deadly gases that the fire produces will be carried directly to the working face where the miners are."

It is not yet clear exactly what caused the Aracoma Mine fire, or if the mine's use of its belt tunnel as a fresh-air intake played a role in spreading the blaze. But when MSHA proposed to allow widespread use of such ventilation plans, the United Mine Workers union warned that the change would "have a significant and detrimental impact on miners."

"High velocities of air being coursed through those belt entries could propagate fires and swiftly have smoke and poisonous contaminants dumped on the coal faces where miners work," the UMW said in a June 2003 letter to MSHA.


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