Member absences delay discussion on coal mine methane rule - WTRF 7 News Sports Weather - Wheeling Steubenville

Member absences delay discussion on coal mine methane rule

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A rule regarding methane levels in West Virginia coal mines is held up at a health and safety board that failed to attract enough members to officially meet on Tuesday.

The West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety was short three members of meeting a quorum – Gary Trout, Theodore Hapney and Carl Egnor. Without enough members, those who did attend the meeting could not perform any official action.

All three missing members represent labor through the United Mine Workers of America. The meeting was scheduled at the same time as a mass protest regarding handling of retiree and other benefits of Patriot Coal, which is in the midst of bankruptcy reorganization.

Phil Smith, director of communications for the United Mine Workers of America, said the three "were all in St. Louis fighting for retirees' and widows lives."

"They will be available for future meetings of the West Virginia coal board, where they will continue to fight against the coal operators attempts to weaken regulations relating to methane in West Virginia's coal mines," Smith said. 

On the agenda Tuesday were a number of issues, including a methane rule related to a mine safety bill touted by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. The board is charged with writing the rules regarding the content of methane in the state's coal mines.

Despite passage more than 10 months ago, officials can not regulate the methane shut-off portion of the mine legislation until the board has completed the rules process.

Federal rules require mining equipment to shut down at concentrations of 2 percent or greater. The proposed state regulations would shut down equipment when concentrations of 1.25 percent are reached for a "sustained" period of time.

Methane is considered an explosive threat in the range of 5 to 15 percent concentration in the atmosphere.

Investigations of the Upper Big Branch explosion that killed 29 coal miners in Raleigh County have largely concluded a build-up of methane started the incident. After a spark from mining equipment ignited the methane, the flames further ignited a powerful blast due to suspended coal dust.

Implementation timetables to retrofit equipment and the definition of "sustained" periods of time have been the two points of disagreement, said Joel Watts, administrator of the board. Watts said the methane legislative rule has been on the agenda for the past several months.

Agendas for the board, he said, list items until there is no more work to be done on that issue. Had the three members of the board who were missing been present, the work would not have necessarily been completed. Watts said items on the agenda are "in progress."

Other items that were included on the agenda included new business regarding ventilation, respirable dust and deep cut mining.

Watts said many of the tasks assigned to the board via the governor's mine legislation have been completed. The methane issue is the only item outstanding for the board to complete.

The legislation was take effect in June, and board members were to write the methane rules by October. The Charleston Gazette first reported on the delay to implement the rules and quoted UMWA member Hapney, who said the labor half of the board was attempting to get the machines to shut off immediately.

Board member and vice-president of the West Virginia Coal Association Chris Hamilton told the Gazette that technical challenges face the board.

"The proposed standard is more rigid and cannot be done from a technology standpoint with existing monitors that are on mining machines," Hamilton said Monday. "There are those who thought that was something that could be done. There's some difficulty in achieving the new standard as it was proposed by the Legislature."

He said current equipment does not provide readings at increments more than one place beyond the decimal.  

"The board had a statutory deadline to meet a set of rules and we missed that deadline," Hamilton said following the board members' attempt to meet Tuesday. "There's still a majority of members very hopeful that we can develop a set of rules that make sense on this topic. … We missed the deadline, but its always best to be a little late than not complete the task."

The governor responded to Gazette inquiry, urging board members to "reconvene" and address the issue. Going into the meeting, Hamilton had expressed that he hoped to move forward on the methane rules.

"We have to meet and have a quorum," he said after the meeting. "You have to approach these things being optimistic that you are going to be able to have a meeting of the minds."

Hamilton said he was confident there would be a discussion and a compromise on writing the rules.

A spokesperson for the UMWA did not immediately confirm if its representatives on the board were in St. Louis during the UMWA protests at Peabody Coal. Watts said only that the members were "out of town."

Eugene White, the new director of the Office of Miners Health Safety and Training and an ex-officio member of the board, was in attendance for his first meeting as director. He did not have comment on the board failing to meet.

Present members of the board discussed meeting in mid-February but had not yet set a date of the next meeting.