Industry sees MSHA proposals as unrealistic and unconstitutional

Posted on behalf of Stewart Bell, PLLC on Jun 08, 2011 in Coal Mining Accidents

The Mine Safety and Health Administration unveiled proposed rule changes recently that the agency believes would diminish the chances of another Upper Big Branch disaster. The April 2010 coal mine accident brought rule violations and enforcement problems to everyone's attention, and MSHA has been reworking the regulations since then.

While the United Mine Workers approved the proposed changes, both the West Virginia Coal Association and Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. (the company that took over UBB's owner, Massey Energy Co.) are asking MSHA to rethink them.

One point of contention was the proposal that would "bundle" regulatory inspections with safety examinations. Miners conducting the safety exams -- which are mandatory -- would also be asked to identify, address and document regulatory violations during those safety exams. The safety checks cover hazards like, for example, build-ups of methane.

The safety checks are also conducted by specially certified miners. The Coal Association complains that the training these miners receive does not include information on federal regulations. In addition, the association feels that MSHA is passing the buck by asking the miners to do the federal government's job.

A representative from Alpha told the agency that the added responsibilities would not only be burdensome for mine examiners but could also have unforeseen circumstances. He explained that an inspector could risk earning a citation from the agency if he or she missed a regulatory violation.

MSHA, however, believes the proposal would make it possible to identify problems and to take corrective actions sooner -- to nip the hazardous condition in the bud, so to speak.

The UMW representative affirmed the agency's stand. The objective is to eliminate the judgment calls that have historically typified the decision to label a violation hazardous. "The current rule simply requires the mine examiner to look for hazards," he said. The new rule would require a more thorough exam and would address issues before they reached crisis stage.

This was the "unrealistic" proposal. We'll discuss the "unconstitutional" proposal in our next post.

Source: Bloomberg BusinessWeek, "Coal industry pans proposed mine safety rules," Tim Huber, 06/blog/2011

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