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Editorial: Work still not complete on mine safety reforms

Jan. 22, 2013 @ 12:18 AM

Last week, we got a look at new rules designed to crack down on repeat mine safety problems and a haunting reminder of why they are so badly needed.

Gary May, a former superintendent at the West Virginia mine where 29 miners died in a 2010 methane gas explosion, was sentenced to 21 months in prison for circumventing safety regulations. Prosecutors contend that May falsified safety records, manipulated the mine ventilation system during inspections and disabled a methane monitor on a cutting machine.

But the larger investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster shows May was not alone in disregarding safety standards, and hopefully the updated Mine Safety and Health Administration rules will help inspectors cut through the "cat and mouse" games that seem to have been part of the culture at UBB.

The changes allow MSHA to move more quickly when inspectors see a "pattern of violations." In the past, problems often were not addressed until after an appeals process and final orders.

"MSHA should not be prevented from taking action to protect the lives of miners for months, or even years, while we await the final outcome of citations and orders that a mine operator can easily contest," MSHA director Joe Main told The Associated Press.

In recent years, MSHA also has improved its process for screening infractions, and the increased focus has helped reduce the number of mines labeled as pattern violators.

But on other fronts, there is still work to do.

West Virginia's broad mine safety bill passed last year included stricter requirements on shutting down mining equipment when methane has been detected underground. However, state regulators have yet to write the rules on that part of the legislation, the Charleston Gazette reported last week.

The state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety, which includes industry and labor representatives, was charged with finishing those updates by October. But the group has struggled to agree on the specifics on what would require an automatic shutdown.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has urged the board to reconvene and get the provisions worked out.

In the nearly three years since the explosion at Upper Big Branch, progress has been made, but it is critical that state and federal regulators follow through on the reform measures and help prevent another tragedy for miners and their families.

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