W.Va. Orders Mines to Reinforce Seals
September 25, 2007
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Underground coal mines must strengthen or replace seals made of cement foam block like those that failed in the Sago Mine disaster under new state regulations given final approval Tuesday.
Mines that can't beef up seals or replace them safely must monitor sealed areas for explosive gases daily and make sure they remain non-explosive, under regulations approved by the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety.
Both requirements go beyond federal rules adopted last May by the Mine Safety and Health Administration. MSHA's emergency sealing rule does not address repairing or replacing existing foam seals, only new ones.
Like that MSHA rule, however, the state would require rebuilt or replacement seals to withstand explosions generating 50 pounds per square inch of pressure.
Mines will be required to submit renovation plans to state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training Director Ron Wooten for approval. Wooten said he expects to give the industry 60 days to submit their plans. "As far as I'm concerned, let's get on with it," he said.
The final version differs only slightly from the proposal the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety sent out for comment last month. Only the United Mine Workers responded and the board agreed to the union's request to delete language that would have allowed an operator to avoid replacing or repairing seals based on a risk assessment of a mine.
Gary Trout, a UMW representative on the board, said the language could have allowed operators to avoid fixing or replacing seals. "They're going to have to remediate them in some kind of fashion," Trout said.
MSHA's rule requires mines to monitor the atmosphere behind 50 psi seals and make it non-explosive by pumping in inert gases. Mines could avoid monitoring by building seals to withstand 120 psi. Mines at risk of more powerful explosions would need even stronger seals.
While MSHA's rule is expected to have a big effect on the nation's 670 underground coal mines, the state's proposal is likely to be less noticeable. Mine operators already have replaced or strengthened some of the approximately 900 cement foam block seals that once existed in the state.
The state banned the use of cement foam blocks for seals last year in response to the fatal Sago explosion, which killed a dozen miners. Government investigators suspect lightning set off a methane explosion inside an abandoned, sealed area and destroyed the foam block seals.