WASHINGTON The Mine Safety and Health Administration published a proposed rule Monday calling for underground coal mines to have a place for workers to be safe if they can not get out right away in the event of an accident.
The rule marks another step in the agency's "unprecedented" pace in getting out rules for the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, known as the MINER Act, which Congress passed two years ago this week, according to MSHA head Richard Stickler.
In the last 18 months, MSHA has published six final rules in the Federal Register, issued an Emergency Temporary Standard and proposed four additional rules, including the latest one on underground refuges that appeared in the Federal Register on Monday, according to MSHA.
While critics on the Capitol Hill have complained it has taken too long for MSHA to implement provisions of the MINER Act, Stickler said rules have never come out at this rate before.
Stickler is scheduled to testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Thursday on progress on mine safety since the 2006
passage of the bill, along with Dr. Jeffery Kohler, associate director for Mining and Construction at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Dennis O'Dell, administrator of Occupational Health and Safety for the United Mine Workers of America and Bruce Watzman, vice president of Safety and Health at the National Mining Association.
MSHA said Monday's proposed rule is based on data and experience, recommendations from a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report on refuge alternatives, research on available and developing technology, and existing regulations in several states.
"While miners must continue to follow their first instinct which is to withdraw from the mine in the event of an emergency this proposed regulation calls for a protected, secure space that creates a life-sustaining environment when escape is not possible," Stickler said.
The refuges alternative and its components must be tested and approved by MSHA before being used. A mine's emergency-response plan must include the location, capability and capacity of refuge alternatives, according to the proposed rule.
The refuge components, such as breathable air and harmful gas removal, would need to sustain individuals for 96 hours, or 48 hours if advance arrangements are made for additional supplies from the surface of the mine, according to MSHA. The rules also require food, water, lighting, first-aid
supplies, sanitation provisions and two-way communication system although a communication system that can work deep underground is still in development.
MSHA will hold four public hearings on the proposal. One hearing will be in Salt Lake City on July 29, and others will take place in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Alabama throughout the summer.
Phil Smith, communications director for the United Mine Workers of America, said the union is still evaluating the proposal, but at first read, the initial concern is that MSHA requires materials for a refuge to be in the mine, and does not require an actual refuge to be built. Smith said the chances of the miners building a refuge on their own are "pretty slim."
As for progress on the MINER Act, Smith said the agency is still behind, and the law still concentrates on what to do after an accident. Smith said
pending legislation would keep accidents from happening in the first place and "be preemptive."
In January, the House passed a Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, known as S-MINER, which says mines need to have better communication equipment now instead of by 2009 as called for in the 2006 bill. But experts have cautioned that the technology is not there yet.The Senate still needs to take up the bill, which supporters think is necessary, especially in the wake of the 2007 Crandall Canyon Mine disaster that killed six miners and three rescuers in Emery County. Opponents of the bill want to give MSHA more time to implement all the MINER Act rules before seeing yet another bill on it come through Congress.