New Federal Mine Safety Rules Criticized

As investigators piece together what caused the underground fire at West Virginia's Aracoma mine last week, critics charge that the Bush administration's new mining safety policies may be increasing the risk of such fires.

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Investigators are piecing together what caused last week's fire along the conveyor belt at the Aracoma mine in West Virginia. Ten miners barely escaped, two miners died. People have been debating how to prevent mine fires for hundreds of years, and now some critics charge that the Bush administration's mining policies could be increasing the risk of fires. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Fires have always been one of the biggest killers in coalmines, and here is why. The miners put all the coal on a conveyor belt to take it out of the mine. It throws off lots of dust. And coal dust is like gunpowder that can catch on fire and explode, and then the whole conveyor belt can catch on fire too. Well, members of Congress thought this problem was so important that they actually wrote a law partly to solve it more than 30 years ago.

It's called the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969. And Congress said there's a very simple and important way that the industry can prevent fires. When you build a coal mine, you have to dig one tunnel where you put the conveyor belt that takes coal out of the mine, and then you have to dig a totally separate tunnel to blow in the huge amounts of fresh air that the miners need to breathe.

Tony Oppegard says, if you step inside a coalmine, you'll instantly understand this rule. Oppegard was a lawyer in the Mine Safety and Health Administration under President Clinton.

TONY OPPEGARD: I mean, it's high velocity air. When you stand in the intake air course, it feels like you're in a windstorm. If there is a beltline fire in that entry, and you're using it as an intake air course, that high velocity of air is going to spread the fire.

ZWERDLING: Then in the 1990s, officials in the Clinton Administration proposed yet another rule, which they said should help prevent fires. They said, let's require the coal companies to use polyvinyl conveyor belts that are more fire resistant; so if some coal does catch on fire, at least the thousands of feet of conveyor belts won't start burning too.

Then President Bush took office. He named an executive in the mining industry to take over the Mine Safety Agency, which people nickname MSHA, and the new chief changed the policies relating to fires. First, he blocked the pending rule that would have required conveyor belts to be more fire resistant. Then he passed a new rule that essentially reversed the section of the mining law that had stood for 35 years. MSHA said from now on, coal companies can use the same tunnel to blow in the miners air and take out the coal. We asked officials at MSHA for an interview. They didn't respond. But a top spokesman for the mining industry agreed to talk about the new policies.

BRUCE WATZMAN: I don't think it was a matter of saving money. This industry has shown time and time again that they don't put a price on safety.

ZWERDLING: Bruce Watzman is Vice President of the National Mining Association. The coal companies he represents helped fight to change both those rules connected to fires. But he says, if anything, they did it to make the miners safer. For instance, Watzman says conveyor belts that are more fire resistant might make mines more dangerous.

WATZMAN: There were comments submitted by conveyor belt manufacturers who indicated that to create a more flame retardant belt, they would have to change the chemical composition of the belt, and in so doing, it had the potential to introduce toxic fumes into the mine environment in case there was a fire.

ZWERDLING: And Watzman says miners should appreciate the new rule, which lets companies use the same tunnel for the conveyor belt and for their air. He acknowledges it's true if there is a fire in that tunnel, then the air could tend to spread it. But he says here is the important thing. The new rule says that mines can use the system only if they also install fire detection devices every thousand feet or so.

WATZMAN: We have atmospheric monitoring systems so that in the event of a fire, these systems are capable of notifying the miners that there might be a fire underground.

ZWERDLING: According to the report so far, the Aracoma mine was using the system. Tony Oppegard, who used to work at MSHA, says Aracoma's fire shows that the Bush administration's policies are bad.

OPPEGARD: Coal mining is already inherently dangerous. I mean, miners already have a tough enough time without MSHA allowing operators to do something that's going to cause more danger. And that's basically what happened in this case.

ZWERDLING: Evidence suggests that the mining industry will save money under the Bush administration's rules. A coal mine might have to spend millions of dollars to dig an extra tunnel and to install a new conveyor belt that's more resistant to fires. The mine would spend way less on the fire detection machines.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

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