Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Blogsphere Loses Well-Known Job-Safety Site

Jordan Barab, who has maintained the "Confined Space" blog focusing on job safety and health for years now, yesterday announced that he is taking another job that will make it impossible to keep up his work on the site. He's going to a staff job on Capitol Hill, where he'll have policy input.

Commenters are writing in already to say how much they'll miss his work and wondering what can fill the gap.

"Confined Space" has in many ways been a fine insipration for what blogs at their best can be: Illuminating, interesting, in-depth -- making connections, filling in gaps, and contributing original material -- and also very important -- updated virtually every single day.

I've long admired it and wondered how Jordan could manage it along with the job he had before!

His next-to last post was an excellent example, giving an in-depth update on the situation in Libby, Mont., where back in the 90's, the town was found widely contaminated by asbestos from a recently defunct mining operation. Well worht reading.

Thanks, Jordan, for blogging all those years, and best luck!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Belt Air Under Scrutiny

One of the interesting things last week was introduction of a federal bill to outlaw use of "belt air," that is, air that has passed along a conveyor belt where it could pick up potentially explosive dust, to ventilate the working face.

Excerpt from one story, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

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."

But there are always complications, as this exceprt from the Charleston Gazette indicates:

Many mine safety experts believe that using conveyor belt tunnels as fresh-air intakes helps to spread underground mine fires and the toxic fumes that they generate. Belt air can also block crucial emergency escape routes, and expose miners to a greater risk of deadly black lung disease, those experts says...

At Aracoma, investigators have not yet blamed the use of belt air along the conveyor belt where the January fire occurred for the blaze or the deaths of Bragg and Hatfield.

In fact, the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training found that Massey mine managers had somehow allowed ventilation in that entry to be reversed, so air was flowing away from the working face...

After the Aracoma fire, Gov. Joe Manchin said his administration would ban the use of belt air in West Virginia.

At about the same time, West Virginia’s congressional delegation included a ban on the practice in a broader mine safety bill.

By the time the federal bill passed, the belt air ban was watered down to a one-year study by a task force appointed by MSHA.

Presumably, under the bill, if passed, MSHA would still be able to allow use of belt air if a company filed a "petition for modification" of the no-belt-air standard, which is how it was done before the rules changed in 2004. The mine operator has to show how an equal or greater level of safety will be achieved. In 2004, MSHA said it had the experience in evaluating so many peititons that it was possible to set general standards to allow any mine safely to use belt air without going through an individual approval process.

The law allows MSHA to essentially lift ("modify the application of") any safety standard at an individual mine if the mine operator makes a good case and passes an investigation. So how much difference in practice will a regulatory ban make? That would presumably depend on the rigor of the petition process.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Lesson on Blogging

OK, so I take a few days off at the holidays. On returning, there are more than 100 news stories piled up related to mines and mine safety. I tell myself I'll "catch up" the blog when I get past the next deadline on my paying job. By then, there are almost 200 stories piled up. Next thing, it's more than a month since anything new went up. Lesson: if it's missed, then it's missed.

Taking up from today:

Pressure for stronger mine safety legislation in the wake of last winter is by no means at an end.

Appalachian News-Express:

HAZARD - Democratic lawmakers were joined yesterday by widows of miners, mine safety advocates and union representatives to support the passage of new mine safety legislation.

“Somebody has got to stand up for the rights of the miners,” said Shelbiana miner Gary Conway, who was fired from his job at Misty Mountain Coal after voicing concerns about safety in the underground mine.

The legislation, recently introduced in the House by Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, calls for more mine inspections, additional safety measures and would allow the Office of Mine Safety and Licensing to initiate disciplinary proceedings against mine foremen for violations of federal, as well as state, mine safety laws.

Supporters say the legislation is desperately needed in the industry and long overdue. “None of these provisions are radical,” said advocate Tony Oppegard. “Most are common sense solutions.”

And the Herald-Leader:

HAZARD - Claudia Cole's husband died in an underground roof collapse. Stella Morris' husband bled to death without receiving first aid. Melissa Lee and Tilda Thomas both lost their husbands to an underground mine explosion.

State Democratic lawmakers yesterday met with these and other widows, coal miners, safety advocates and union officials in Eastern Kentucky's coalfields to back newly introduced legislation that they say will prevent similar mine fatalities.
"We've got to make sure miners are safe in Kentucky's mines," said House Speaker Jody Richards, of Bowling Green, who was joined by Reps. Brent Yonts of Greenville and Leslie Combs of Pikeville.

The mine safety bill, sponsored by Yonts, would double the number of mine inspections, require all underground miners to carry a methane detector and beef up onsite emergency personnel, among other things.

The Courier-Journal editorialized:

Detractors have argued for decades that the state mine safety program isn't as rigorous as its federal counterpart.

Why? Because, the theory goes, state regulation is more vulnerable to all the Frankfort politicians who get campaign cash from coal operators and their allies...

It that true? The paper earlier reported finding

seven times more federal than state citations per inspection.

raising some questions about the state program's effectiveness, obviously.

I would like to comment on the state accident investigation reports, since I report on these things regularly in my real job. I think it is well worth while to have the state doing its own independent investigations in addition to MSHA. This provides a cross-check, not only to keep everyone honest, but also comparing the reports often fills in gaps and creates a more complete picture of what happened, two eyes provide 3-D vision. I think that sometimes the state's report is better and sometimes MSHA's. Sometimes when one agency skates over an issue in an investigation, the other will nail it. Whatever happens with the state agency, I hope the investigative program will be preserved.

International news:

We have in China, an update on a case where a coal mine operator had a pair of journalists murdered for asking too many questions. There is now a suggestion (no way to evaluate) that this was more of a shakedown operation than a news gathering effort. Whichever it was, corrupt practices in the mining industry were the root cause of this incident.

And here is a link to a blogger in India who has posted a lengthy indictment of the coal mine safety system there. Illegal mining is one of the problems described. I suggest readers take a look and evaluate this piece for themselves.