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Methane shutoff law for W.Va. mines in limbo a year later

| Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013, 6:10 p.m.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A state mine safety requirement concerning methane is in limbo nearly a year after lawmakers approved it.

A provision in the 2012 mine safety law tightens the state's requirement for mining equipment to be automatically shut off when methane is detected in an underground mine.

The Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety still has not written rules needed to enforce the requirement, The Charleston Gazette reported.

“I know they were struggling with it,” said House Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, who is a United Mine Workers official. “I want them to find a way to get this done. That is clearly a key requirement of this mine safety bill.”

Chris Hamilton, a West Virginia Coal Association representative to the board, said board members “have struggled to get the rules written.”

But Hamilton said other provisions of the legislation, including drug-testing requirements for miners and improving mine inspection practices, were more critical than the methane monitor provision.

One unresolved issue is defining when an automatic shutdown should occur. Another is establishing a schedule for when the monitoring and shutdown systems must be in place and operational.

Methane, which is naturally present in coal mines, can explode when the concentration is between 5 and 15 percent of the air. Methane and coal dust fueled the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 miners.

Federal rules require underground mining equipment to automatically shut down if methane monitors detect the gas at concentrations of 2 percent or greater. The state's new standard sets the threshold at 1.25 percent, but only if this concentration is reached for a “sustained period.”

Lawmakers left the definition of “sustained period” up to the mine safety board.

“We're saying (make mining machines) shut down immediately,” said Ted Hapney, a UMW representative to the mine safety board.

Hamilton said establishing a schedule for the monitoring and shutdown systems is the real holdup. This effort is complicated by the fact that existing methane monitors cannot show the new 1.25 percent standard. Their read-out systems display only two digits.

Designing and building new units, and then getting them approved by the federal government, could take three years or more, Hamilton said.

“People sometimes underestimate the hardware side of changes,” said Mark Sindelar, a West Virginia University engineering professor who has studied methane monitoring systems. “If they would have set it at 1.2 percent or 1.3 percent, it would have been a pretty easy technological change.”

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