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.


Anonymous paul said...

A while back I worked for a company that built custom conveyors. I worked there for almost 20 year and I think they should be able to work around it.

7:42 PM  

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