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Coal mining firms strive to clean up image as regulators focus on safety

Posted On: May. 31, 2015 12:00 AM CST

Coal mining companies are making strides to comply with evolving regulations from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration while still taking steps to improve safety on their own.

Of several initiatives by the agency, imposition of a final rule that's intended to lower miners' exposure to breathable coal dust in underground and surface coal mines may have the biggest effect on the industry.

During the first phase of the rule, completed in March, the agency collected more than 41,000 dust samples from mines across the country and found about 99% were in compliance with the new standard, which lowers the acceptable amount of airborne coal dust to 1.5 milligrams per cubic meter of air from 2.0 in areas of underground mines where coal is produced and for surface mines.

According to the latest full-year data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there were 1,061 coal mines and 80,396 miners in the U.S. at the end of 2013. That compares with 1,435 mines and 86,859 miners at the peak of production for the U.S. coal mining industry in 2008.

This coal mine consolidation in the U.S. comes as the industry invests in technology and makes better use of automation, enabling companies to maintain production with fewer workers.

Moreover, the industry faces competitive pressures as other nations, most notably China, continue to increase their coal production relative to the U.S.

Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor of mine safety and health, said the coal industry's successful reduction in dust levels was due largely to its increased use of ventilation systems, sprayed water to reduce dust and environmentally controlled cabs in vehicles.

“Better dust-control systems a are in place than ever before for our nation's coal miners,” Mr. Main said in an April statement about the test results. “This rule is working.”

Other technology also is aiding mining firms' efforts to keep workers safe and avoid enforcement actions.

“We hear a lot about the enforcement side, but there have been great strides in safety in recent years from the industry perspective from what I have been seeing in the field,” said Joe Smith, Crab Orchard, West Virginia-based senior risk engineer of mining at Zurich North America.

Mr. Smith said mining firms are using better radios, proximity detectors that shut equipment down to avoid trapping workers between pieces of equipment or against a stationary object, real-time carbon monoxide monitoring and onboard cameras that enable workers to see what's ahead and behind them as they operate vehicles.

“We now have undergrounding tracking available for every miner in a coal mine, so one person in a control room could see where every person is at all times,” Mr. Smith said. “That's huge.”

While the tracking is available, it is not mandated and not every mine uses it.

Gary Muck, St. Louis-based senior vice president of loss control at Lockton Cos. L.L.C., said mining industry risk and safety managers need to move beyond compliance to tackling issues that improve safety and limit the company's total cost of risk, which is the sum of all aspects of an organization's operations that relate to risk, including workers compensation costs.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration's “reportable incident rate may not correlate with your workers comp rate,” Mr. Muck said. “MSHA keeps coming up with citations, but they often have little to do with (the total cost of risk.) The fact that latches are broken on bathrooms is not what is hurting our miners.”

According to MSHA, during the first half of 2014, of the eight miners killed in accidents in the coal mining industry, four miners died in machinery accidents, two miners were killed in powered haulage accidents and two miners died in a double fatality when a coal seam burst.

Bruce Watzman, Washington-based vice president of safety and health at the National Mining Association, said the pace of technology-induced change in the mining industry change means that areas of regulatory emphasis often do not reconcile with current safety threats.

“We are still dealing with an agency that was born out of a statute from 1969 and still operates under the guise of that statute while the industry that they are regulating is dramatically different,” Mr. Watzman said. “We continue to wonder about whether MSHA's resource allocations are correct given the changes in the industry.”

He criticized the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act of 2015, which was reintroduced this year in Congress and would expand the agency's enforcement power, including expedited authority to close mine operations with repeated and significant safety problems. Currently authorities can shut down a mine under sections of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, but the process is lengthy and subject to appeal from the mine operator.

“In our view, MSHA already has the necessary tools available to them and we are seeing safety improving across the industry in the absence of new statutory authority,” he said.

But Dan Colton, a Minneapolis-based partner at Dorsey & Whitney L.L.P. who specializes in mining, regulatory affairs and environmental law, said regulatory oversight is a constant in the mining industry.

“Taking a mineral deposit from conception through to getting permits is a heavily regulated undertaking,” he said. “Once you are up and operating, you are heavily regulated as well.”