CHARLESTON, W.Va. The United Mine Workers has panned a proposed federal rule designed to improve rescue operations at the nation's 653 underground coal mines, in part by cutting maximum emergency response times in half.
"The union does not believe the proposed rule should move forward as it is written," Dennis O'Dell, administrator of Occupational Health and Safety, told a federal Mine Safety and Health Administration panel Tuesday. MSHA either misunderstood or ignored Congress when it crafted the mine rescue rule, said O'Dell, who suggested tabling the proposal and rewriting it after talking with the union, mine operators and lawmakers.
The rule is aimed at complying with a federal law passed last year after an explosion that killed 12 West Virginia miners and several other high-profile fatal accidents.
The proposal would require rescuers to reach underground coal mines within one hour. The current rule is two hours.
Rescue teams also would have to be certified, familiar with a mine's workings and participate in two local mine rescue contests annually. Members would need at least three years of underground experience and 64 hours of training a year. The current requirement is 40 hours per year.
O'Dell, however, said Congress mandated rescue teams at every underground coal mine, not just two employees from each mine serving on rescue teams as proposed by MSHA.
"They should be employed at that mine," O'Dell said in an interview with The Associated Press.
O'Dell and others from the coal industry also raised questions about the amount and type of training required by the rule. O'Dell told the panel that rescue teams should be required to practice at mines they are assigned to serve, though he said the union has not decided how often that should occur.
Ken Perdue, from Abingdon, Va.-based mine operator Alpha Natural Resources, said the rule is going to cost his company $530,000, much of it to relocate one mine rescue station. He said MSHA's estimate that the rule would cost the industry $3.1 million a year is too low.
Perdue added that the rule may eliminate mine rescue teams rather than increase their ranks because it would break up existing units and add so much training time that members would quit.
"It will take years and millions of dollars for us to overcome" the changes, Perdue said.
Pennsylvania Bureau of Mine Safety official Jeffrey Stanchek says the state will have to spend $800,000 on a new mine rescue station and another $150,000 a year to operate it. And Stanchek told the panel that rescue team training requirements could add up to significantly more costs, though he didn't provide a figure.
At a second hearing Tuesday afternoon on proposed rules requiring additional oxygen supplies and other equipment in all the nation's mines regardless of whether they mine coal, Stanchek asked whether the state would have to buy two gas detectors for each mine rescue team or if teams could share devices. "Once again we're doubling our money," he said.
MSHA Office of Standards, Regulations and Variances Director Patricia Silvey told Stanchek the agency will address his question in the final rule. "I think we will do it satisfactorily," she said.
Interest in emergency response was spurred by the January 2006 deadly explosion at West Virginia's Sago Mine and was renewed after this past summer's death of six miners and three rescue workers at the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah.
The MSHA proposals were called for in last year's federal Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act.
Tuesday's hearings were the third of four sessions on the proposals. MSHA has held similar meetings in Salt Lake City and Lexington, Ky. A final session is scheduled for Thursday in Birmingham, Ala.