Coal Tattoo

Today’s news release from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration about its monthly “impact” inspections included a new twist:

MSHA recently added a criterion to its impact inspection policy to emphasize the selection of mines that have had compliance issues related to respirable coal dust.

According to MSHA:

All of the coal mines selected in September previously had been cited for violations regarding respirable dust sampling results or methods, inadequate dust control or ventilation plans, on-shift examination violations or hazard complaints related to respirable dust. The impact inspections focused on compliance with the respirable dust standard and with approved ventilation and dust control plans.

MSHA chief Joe Main said:

As part of our overall strategy to improve compliance in the nation’s mines, and because of the egregious nature of some of the coal dust-related violations our inspectors have encountered during past impact inspections, I’ve instructed our enforcement personnel to give special consideration to mines with respirable dust or ventilation and dust control plan compliance concerns.

In its release, MSHA offered an Alpha Natural Resources mine as an example:

… An impact inspection was conducted Sept. 10 at Elk Run Coal Inc.’s Roundbottom Powellton Mine in Boone County, W.Va., due to overexposures and the mine’s otherwise poor compliance history with respirable dust requirements. Inspectors issued 20 citations and one order during the health-focused inspection.

MSHA went on:

Each set of mining machinery is required to have a minimum amount of air available to ventilate all working faces, dilute gases and carry coal dust away from the workers. In this mine, the operator failed to follow the methane and dust control portion of an approved ventilation plan, and inspectors found many improperly ventilated areas. In one section where a continuous mining machine was located, there was not even enough air movement to turn the blades of an anemometer – an inspector’s air measurement device – to measure any ventilating current.

Air quantity in this area also was low due to a clogged scrubber filter on the continuous miner, which allowed only 60 percent of the air flow required. Additionally, only 27 of the 41 required water sprays were working.

Tests of other sections and working faces also indicated low air quantities. Inspectors issued citations for a recently mined and roof-bolted face that did not have the minimum air quantities maintained as specified in the operator’s approved ventilation plan.

Additionally, coal accumulations existed in active areas for distances of up to 45 feet in length and 24 inches in depth, the mine’s tracking system did not properly function to track individuals on the working sections, an undersized coal support pillar was found and reflectors required to mark roof conditions were not installed. These conditions had not been identified during required operator examinations. Consequently, MSHA issued citations for the violations.

Main said:

Inadequate ventilation, insufficient air quantities and improperly maintained dust controls expose miners to the risk of explosions and black lung.

In another example, MSHA said:

… An impact inspection was conducted Sept. 12 at Dana Mining LLC’s Arco No. 1 Mine in Marion County, W.Va. Federal inspectors issued one unwarrantable failure citation and one unwarrantable failure order for not complying with the approved ventilation plan. This impact inspection was the mine’s first.

Inspectors examined the active section where the continuous mining machine was operating and discovered the operator illegally mining coal with the entire length of the ventilation line curtain (88 feet) rolled up to the roof.

The mine was issued an unwarrantable failure order because no ventilating current was being provided to the face where the continuous miner was operating. The operator’s failure to follow the approved ventilation plan created conditions that expose miners to risks of explosions and black lung. These compliance failures prevented ventilation to remove respirable dust and gasses from the working environment. All production personnel were retrained on the requirements of the approved ventilation plan.

All of this, of course, comes in the midst of a resurgence of black lung that has reached epidemic proportions, as outlined in a joint report earlier this year by the Center for Public Integrity and NPR News, with additional reporting by the Gazette. Regular readers know, of course, that the Obama record on mine safety is somewhat mixed, in large part because MSHA has yet to finalize its rules to require tougher limits on the coal dust that causes black lung.