The National Mining Assn. has filed an emergency rulemaking petition with MSHA, asking that the agency extend by 5 years the deadline for underground coal mine operators to have key components approved under Part 7 by MSHA incorporated into their emergency refuge facilities.
The 13-page petition to MSHA Assistant Secretary Joe Main, signed by Bruce Watzman on Oct. 22, NMA Senior Vice President, Regulatory Affairs, requested an answer from the mine agency by Nov. 5.
MSHA on Aug. 8 published a Request for Information seeking “information on escape and refuge options that may present more effective solutions than the existing rules for miners’ escape and safety,” including “effective options to the specific requirements in the existing rule,” the agency stated in the RFI. “Comments should address escape strategies, refuge alternatives, training, and certification,” the RFI stipulated.
The agency recently extended the comment period on the RFI to Dec. 6, the MSHA website indicated.
Watzman asserted that the approval schedule in particular deserved immediate attention “to ensure that the safety of the Nation’s underground coal miners will not be compromised due to the newly recognized potential hazards associated with the currently required fleet of refuge chambers in underground coal mines.”
Section 101(b)(1) of the Mine Act states, “The Secretary shall provide…for an emergency temporary mandatory health or safety standard to take immediate effect upon publication in the Federal Register if he [sic] determines (A) that miners are exposed to grave danger from exposure to substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful, or to other hazards, and (B) that such emergency standard is necessary to protect miners from such danger.”
Watzman asked Main to amend, on an emergency basis, §75.1506(a)(2) and (3). These sections require that MSHA approvals under Part 7 be obtained for refuge and refuge-alternative components that provide breathable air, air monitoring, and removal of harmful gases. The approval requirement applies both to refuges composed of stoppings and to pre-fabricated self-contained units. State-approved components, if already accepted by MSHA as part of individual mines’ emergency response plans, currently are allowed only until Dec. 31, 2013.
As of this August, MSHA had not yet issued any approvals for air-monitoring components, but agency officials said they expected to do so soon and had no plans to alter the compliance deadline. The agency had issued 15 approvals covering breathable-air and gas-removal
components, with other applications pending (20 MSHN 476).
When the original rule requiring refuges or refuge alternatives appeared at the end of 2008, MSHA anticipated Part 7 approvals would be completed by the end of 2009, Watzman noted. “As it turns out, in reality, it has taken five years to approach the accomplishment of what MSHA predicted would take only one year,” he stated.
The NMA petition pointed to several examples of NIOSH research (some currently unpublished), suggesting that prefabricated refuge alternatives in use today may not always provide 96 hours of survivability, despite providing 96 hours of oxygen. External heat, internal humidity and limits to the systems’ capacity in extreme concentrations of carbon monoxide could shorten miners’ survival times in these units, the letter suggested.
“[T]the interaction between refuge alternatives and the mine environment is more complex than has been previously understood and accounted for in the Part 7 approval process,” Watzman wrote.
These issues “are very likely to remain problems for many months (if not years),” the petition stated. “Whether retrofitting the existing fleet of currently deployed refuge alternatives will be necessary, or whether a new generation of refuge alternatives will be required is simply unknown at this time….
“NMA’s concerns are not intended to disrupt efforts to provide miners with last resort life-saving technology,” Watzman continued. “Rather, our concerns are driven by the aforementioned NIOSH research which we commit to immediately analyze, along with MSHA, NIOSH, refuge alternative manufacturers, representatives of miners, and all other stakeholders as soon as it is publicly available.”
“Of course, during this time, the fleet of refuge alternatives currently deployed and approved in the emergency response plan of every underground coal mine in the United States will remain available to miners,” the petition stated. “Should it be possible to solve the problems identified in the NIOSH research prior to Dec. 31, 2018, and correct them in the field, the NMA would support establishment of a reasonable deadline prior to Dec. 31, 2018.”
Watzman also expressed concern that the current situation “may leave miners with an false sense of security….[B]ased on our understanding of NIOSH’s research, we cannot simply teach and train the nation’s miners on how to deploy and operate a refuge alternative, and tell them that they will be able to survive for four days,” he wrote. “[I]t is…important that we provide miners with an honest appraisal of their safety so that they can make educated decisions if they are forced to choose between seeking refuge in a refuge alternative, or making another attempt at escape.”
“Should you reject our emergency rulemaking petition and leave your current rule intact, MSHA’s message to the nations miners will be that refuge alternatives and components that have been approved under Part 7 will provide a safe haven if they are operated according to manufacturer specifications,” the petition asserted.
The United Mine Workers of America earlier contested the final 2008 rule, including MSHA’s decision on minimum refuge space per miner. The union raised concerns at that time about heat and carbon dioxide exposure in refuges that might provide as as little as 30 cubic feet per miner in some cases, compared with 85 cubic feet originally recommended by NIOSH.
The court rejected the UMWA’s objection on the space issue but did require MSHA to revisit its decision to require hands-on training annually rather than quarterly. The agency conducted a limited reopening of the record on the training issue; that comment period closed Oct. 7.
MSHA offered no immediate comment on the rulemaking petition.
The requirement for refuges or refuge alternatives in underground coal mines, to be available in case of emergency, fulfills a portion of 2006 MINER Act that was passed after the Sago mine explosion, in which miners perished from carbon monoxide exposure while awaiting rescue, and the Darby mine explosion in which three miners died from CO poisoning.