By Vicki Smith, Associated Press
CHARLESTON, W.Va.—Coal operators across the country are changing the way they work, and mines are becoming safer, but the head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said Thursday there are still too many who “don’t get it.”
In a speech at the West Virginia Coal Association’s annual mining symposium, MSHA chief Joe Main said his inspectors can’t be in every mine at every shift, and companies need to take more responsibility for running coal safely. Those who don’t, he warned, can expect to face tough penalties.
“The law is clear that operators must take ownership of safety and health at their mines,” Main said. “If an MSHA inspector can travel through a mine and identify these conditions, so can mine operators.
“Taking more ownership means finding and fixing problems and violations of the laws and rules before MSHA finds them — or more importantly — before a miner becomes ill, is injured, or dies,” he said.
But Main says preliminary data for 2011 is evidence of improvements.
The total number of mining citations and orders issued by MSHA was 157,894 in 2011, down from 171,373 the year before. Citations and orders at underground coal mines totaled 76,732 in 2011, down from 80,079 the year before.
About 49 percent of the violations cited were at underground coal mines, even though those mines accounted for only 5 percent of the 14,000 inspected.
Main said he’s also encouraged by the progress made at 14 mines that were notified in 2010 they might be designated potential pattern violators and subject to the most intense scrutiny.
The total violation rate among those mines is down 21 percent, he said, while the rate of significant and serious violations is down 38 percent. Lost time to injuries is also down 39 percent.
Main credited operators such as Alliance Coal for taking a progressive approach, installing proximity detection equipment on continuous mining machines to prevent crushing deaths and injuries.
Consol Energy and Peabody Energy are working on similar detectors for section mining equipment, and Consol is doing what Main called “valuable work” to develop communication systems that let miners underground talk to people on the surface.
St. Louis-based Arch Coal, meanwhile, is a leader in emergency preparation.
And Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources’ recent agreement with federal prosecutors will lead to sweeping changes in the way mining had long been done at the former Massey Energy operations it acquired last summer.
In December, Alpha reached a $210 million settlement that spares the corporation criminal prosecution for the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia that killed 29 men in 2010 but leaves individuals on the hook for their conduct.
That agreement also requires Alpha to invest $48 million in a mine-safety research trust and spend an additional $80 million to improve safety at all of its mines with the latest technology.