Panel recommends fireproof conveyor belts in coal mines
CHARLESTON -- A federal panel has endorsed the controversial practice of pumping fresh air into coal mines through conveyer belt tunnels.
The panel also has recommended that fireproof belts be required in all the nation's 670 underground mines to significantly reduce the risk of serious belt fires.
The recommendations are contained in a congressionally mandated study that the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration plans to use as the basis for new regulations.
MSHA agrees with the main concepts in the report, spokesman Matthew Faraci said on Wednesday.
"We intend to complete final regulations on this issue in 2008," he said.
Allowing belt air, however, is likely to draw opposition from the United Mine Workers.
"It's not as bad as it could be, but it's certainly not what we want," UMW President Cecil Roberts said.
Roberts contends disasters such as a fire that killed 27 at the Wilberg Mine in Utah in 1984 could have been prevented by an outright ban on belt air. The report stems from congressional concern over a more recent fatal fire at Massey Energy Co.'s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County nearly two years ago. The 132-page report followed an 11-month review and was made public Tuesday.
Roberts said federal mining law theoretically bars the use of belt air, but MSHA allows the practice by granting exemptions. "We have opposed ventilating the face with belt air since MSHA started allowing those exceptions," he said.
The study recommends higher standards for using belt air, including atmospheric monitoring systems to detect smoke, carbon monoxide and other early warnings of a belt fire and more rigorous inspections by MSHA.
The panel concluded that fire resistant belts are perhaps more important than belt air. MSHA-approved belts continue to catch fire, while other countries have more stringent standards, the panel wrote.
Other recommendations included a two-year study to evaluate whether testing belts for friction would improve safety and requiring certification of atmospheric monitoring system operators.