The Mine Safety and Health Administration has issued a policy memo that would require mine operators to halt longwall mining operations if a roof fall blocks an escapeway.

MSHA Director David C. O'Neal told Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that operators of underground coal mines, like the Wilberg Mine, would be required to cease mining pending an investigation by the administration if a roof fall blocked the tailgate or back entrance to the mining area.Hatch had objected to new rules on longwall mining issued late last year. In a letter to Hatch, O'Neal said that when investigation of a fall is pending, operations should be halted so the fall area will not be disturbed.

The Wilberg mine burned two years ago, killing 27 miners who were not able to escape, in part because a roof collapse nearly closed the tailgate. In his response to Hatch's March 7 letter, O'Neal said entries in longwall mines are vitally important to safety.

He added that his policy memo will cover escapeway problems pending completion of proposed ventilation standards by the agency.

O'Neal said operators are required to report to the administration any roof fall that prevents exit from a longwall panel on the tailgate side. The administration will notify an operator of its investigation of a fall and instruct the operator not to alter the site until an investigation is completed.

"If continued operations would disturb the fall, the operator would be required to cease mining operations on the longwall pending completion of the investigation," he wrote Hatch.