September 16, 2011

Data Show Safety Levels Improving at Coal Mines

From: Wall Street Journal


Government data suggest U.S. coal mines have grown safer in the 18 months since an underground explosion killed 29 West Virginia miners, with industry and federal officials attributing the improvement to increased enforcement of regulations and better training by mining companies themselves.

Safety violations at coal mines fell 5% per inspection hour through the third quarter of 2011 compared with the violation rate in 2010, according to figures compiled by the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Serious violations involving more than ordinary negligence, such as failing to repair a methane monitor previously cited by an inspector, fell 12%.

“I believe the efforts we’re making are having a positive impact on improving mine safety in this country,” said Joe Main, Assistant Secretary of Labor and head of MSHA, which oversees the nation’s 14,500 mines, including 2,000 coal mines.

Brett Harvey, CEO of Consol Energy Inc., a Pittsburgh mining company, said that while violations didn’t always correlate to the level of safety in a mine, he believed mines were getting safer, partly as a result of increased enforcement. “I wouldn’t disagree with the fact that enforcement has made people aware, and people don’t really have any tolerance for accidents,” he said. “Tightening up people that were playing on the edge has made mines safer.”

Following the April 2010 accident at Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch Mine, which had a history of repeat violations, MSHA was criticized for not having closed the mine, and began targeting mines it viewed as having a high level of violations or risk. Several were shut down until improvements were made, and a few were closed permanently. At the targeted mines, violations involving more than ordinary negligence dropped 51% since September 2010, MSHA said.

So far this year, 14 coal miners have been killed on the job, mostly as a result of accidents involving equipment or falling rock. That compares with 48 killed while working last year—including the 29 at Massey’s West Virginia mine—and 18 in 2009.

Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, said that while the union believed increased enforcement had caused operators to pay more attention to safety, fewer violations didn’t necessarily mean mines were getting safer.

“There are still many mines out there which are not following the law and appear not to care to do so,” he said. “The mines weren’t any safer for the 14 coal miners killed thus far this year.”

Safety experts attributed the higher level of vigilance by companies to the Massey accident, the worst U.S. mining accident in 40 years. “It’s taking hold that if companies can’t police themselves, the government is going to make them comply with this high level of performance,” said Larry Grayson, a professor of energy and mineral engineering at Pennsylvania State University.

Several mining companies, including Abingdon, Va.-based Alpha Natural Resources Inc., which purchased Massey Energy in June, say they are putting greater emphasis on safety.

“Our job is to make MSHA’s job harder in terms of finding things to cite,” said Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield in a recent interview. “They need to see a tangible change at some of these coal mines, and we’re doing our level best to make sure that that’s exactly what’s happening.”

Alpha is asking MSHA not to put two former Massey mines on a list for tougher enforcement, saying significant management changes have been made at the mine and that the two mines planned to study the types of citations they received during Massey’s ownership and “use that analysis as the basis for developing a written plan for corrective action at their respective mines.”

Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, said he thinks that mines are safer due to enforcement and companies reviewing and improving safety systems independently. Mr. Popovich said he believes the safety agency is trying to improve its reputation. “It’s protecting what it does in the wake of some accidents that have left many wondering, ‘Where was MSHA?'”

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