Friday, March 28, 2008

When Is a Miner Not a Miner?

The moment he steps off mine property. But all the same, let's have a moment of silence for the unnamed victim of the latest fatal mine-related accident in West Virginia. The Charleston Gazette:

A Massey Energy worker was killed Thursday when he tried to help free a trailer that was stuck on a steep railroad crossing in Logan County, officials said....

Amy Louviere, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, said MSHA does not have jurisdiction because the accident didn't occur on mine company property.

C.A. Phillips, deputy director for the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, said his agency would not investigate for the same reason.

Warren Flatau, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said his agency would probably not investigate either.

The FRA investigates only a small number of railroad grade crossing accidents per year, Flatau said. The agency would send someone later to look at the crossing and see if steps could be taken to make it safer, he said.

MSHA's Louviere said the victim was employed at Massey company Highland Mining's nearby Freeze Fork Surface Mine.

OSHA is investigating this accident. But mining companies and miners would do well to be warned of the hazard involved, since many mines depend on rail transport.

The FRA warns truck drivers that vehicles with low clearances can easily get stuck on "humpbacked" railroad crossings. The agency says a train and a stuck low-clearance trailer collide on average once every two weeks nationwide.
Details:
The accident occurred at a steep, or "humpbacked," railroad crossing along W.Va. 17 near Stollings, authorities said.

A truck was crossing the tracks pulling a "low boy" trailer when the trailer became stuck on the crossing.

The victim, an employee of Massey's Mass Transport subsidiary, was attempting to free the trailer when he was struck by a piece of metal, said Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater.

"It was saddle-bagged on the railroad tracks," said Logan County Sheriff Eddie Hunter. "They attempted to jack it up and something flew out and hit the gentleman."

Authorities were notifying the family before identifying the victim.

MSHA administrator Kevin Stricklin has advised that we can mark our calendars to expect the federal agency's Crandall Canyon report in approximately late June, the Salt Lake Tribune reports.

Kevin Stricklin, administrator over MSHA's coal division, said the investigative team headed by Richard Gates has conducted all of its interviews, reviewed thousands of documents and currently is writing a draft report at an MSHA facility in Tridelphia, W.Va.

He was hesitant to speculate on a more precise completion date, noting that Crandall Canyon mine operator Murray Energy Corp. and its Utah subsidiaries are still submitting information to investigators.

"It's our responsibility to go through every page," said Stricklin of the need for a thorough probe of the mining disaster....
If history is any guide, the agency will need longer than estimated to complete the report, but officials will be under tremendous pressure to get the report out ahead of the anniversary date of August 6 if at all possible. This will allow the agency to take charge of the story lead at that time and defuse criticism before a spate of "anniversary" stories hits.

Last week, MSHA fined Murray Energy $420,000 for two flagrant violations of safety regulations at the Tower mine, contending the company repeatedly allowed buildups of potentially explosive coal dust there.

Stricklin said MSHA has issued 50 flagrant violation orders, seeking fines totaling $7.1 million, since the repeat-offense citation was created as part of the 2006 Mine Emergency and Response Act (MINER), enacted after three Eastern disasters early that year. ....

The Tribune recently praised MSHA for its use of the new, higher penalties for "flagrant" violations, using a somewhat fanciful extended metaphor:
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has a powerful weapon.... One that hits mining companies where it hurts... But a weapon is only useful as a deterrent if there is reason to believe it will actually be fired....MSHA pulled the trigger Thursday - twice - blasting Murray Energy subsidiary Andalex Resources Inc. with a pair of fines totalling $420,300... Murray managers, it seems, got what they were asking for... And the rest of the industry should pay heed. The much-maligned MSHA appears to be locked and loaded and ready and willing to pull the trigger.
Whooooeee, mining industry. Clint Eastwood is headed your way.

In the health department, a Kentucky coal miner has filed suit in an effort to force MSHA to reduce the respirable dust standard. The Charleston Gazette again;
Letcher County miner Scott Howard filed his suit Thursday in U.S. District Court in eastern Kentucky.

Howard wants Judge Karen K. Caldwell to force the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration to issue a tougher limit governing coal miners' exposure to respirable coal dust.

MSHA, Howard says in his lawsuit, has a "plain legal duty to promulgate a respirable dust regulation that will eliminate respiratory illnesses caused by work in coal mines."

The suit asks that MSHA be ordered to issue the tougher dust limit as an emergency temporary standard, a move allowed only if MSHA believes miners are at "grave danger from exposure to substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful"...

Howard is represented by Stephen A. Sanders, a lawyer with the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Whitesburg, Ky., and by Nathan Fetty, a lawyer with the Mine Safety Project of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment.

If exposure to respirable dust is an emergency, it's also a long-running one.

Almost 8 years ago, in the closing days of the Clinton Administration, then-MSHA chief Davitt McAteer was desperately trying to push through a regulatory change in the way coal mine dust exposure is determined for enforcement purposes -- away from requiring an average of 5 samples, each taken over a whole shift, to a system where the agency could take action based on one sample showing an overexposure over the course of a whole shift. (The effort to make that simple change had been going on for years, in the face of multiple legal entanglements.) McAteer argued that the 5-sample requirement had no scientific basis and resulted in many individuals experiencing overexposures -- even under the current 2.0 mg/cubic meter standard -- without MSHA being able to do anything about it. The proposed change in protocol almost made it through the last set of regulatory hurdles before the White House changed hands -- but not quite.

Subsequently, industry and labor organizations agreed that they would prefer to wait for approval of a continuous reading dust monitor that a miner could wear. The new monitor was under development by NIOSH and billed as close to completion.

Miners are still waiting for an improved sampling system. That's another 8 years of breathing coal dust in essentially the same conditions.

Meanwhile, reducing the dust standard would be another way of achiving greater protection.

Sidelights: The National Mining Association recently found itself in the news as AP reported it spent
about $4.1 million in 2007 to lobby the government on mine safety and coal technology, among other issues...

The National Mining Association spent $2.4 million in the second half of the year lobbying the federal government on its own behalf, according to a disclosure form posted online Feb. 13 by the Senate's public records office....The trade group -- whose more than 325 member companies include Arch Coal Inc., Foundation Coal Holdings Inc. and Terex Corp. -- spent $1.7 million in the first six months of 2007 to lobby on largely similar matters...

Lobbyists are required to disclose activities that could influence members of the executive and legislative branches, under a federal law enacted in 1995.
Nice work if you can get it.

And if you happen to be in Washington, the Post reports, you might be interested in an upcoming concert next Tuesday or Wednseday evening out at Wolf Trap Farm Park:

SINGER KATHY MATTEA grew up in West Virginia; both of her grandfathers were coal miners and her mother worked for the United Mine Workers. After 12 miners died in the Sago mine explosion in 2006, she resolved to make an album of the coal-mining songs she had been stockpiling for years. "Coal" combines the mountain string-band sound of her roots with the studio polish of her Nashville stardom far better than might be expected.
On the other hand, if you're one of those folks with the NMA, you might not.

The album climaxes with Mattea's take on Hazel Dickens's classic protest song, "Black Lung"... Mattea's song choices are astute: You can't beat...Merle Travis's "Dark as a Dungeon" or Darrell Scott's "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive."
Does anybody out there know any songs about how great it is to be a miner, or even a mine operator? Or maybe a lobbyist?

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