The Long Debate Over Belt Air
The big push for changes in coal mine safety has resurrected a prickly ventilation issue that divides management and labor.
- By Marc Barrera
- Mar 01, 2007
LAST year's spike in mining accidents, which began with the Sago
mine explosion Jan. 2 and was followed 17 days later by two fatalities
in a conveyor belt fire in the Aracoma Alma #1 mine, also in West
Virginia, put a national spotlight on what Cecil E. Roberts, president
of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), described in his speech
before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on
March 2 as the Mine Safety and Health Administration's history of
"inaction and chronically misdirected efforts."
Roberts argued MSHA had steered away from its original purpose set
forth by Congress, which was "to develop and promulgate improved
mandatory health and safety standards to protect the health and safety
of miners," by using the petition for modification (PFM) process to
find ways to allow equivalent exceptions to standards and regulations,
rather than improving those documents. In support of his argument,
Roberts discussed the long and controversial history of "belt air,"
which despite the union's opposition had recently been allowed in all
mines with the passage of the 2004 Final Rule (30 CFR Part 75).
Growing public outcry for change last year pressured lawmakers into
action, and the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act
of 2006 was enacted. The act calls for research committees to study
many different mine safety issues and creation of a technical panel to
revisit the issue of belt air and the flammability of belt materials.
This panel would present a report to Congress within one year of its
appointment, which happened Jan. 9, 2007.
But Dennis O'Dell, UMWA's administrator of Occupational Health and
Safety, said he questions Congress's intent in taking this action. "The
industry just went crazy when we first talked about eliminating the use
of belt air," he said. "Congress said, 'Okay, rather than upset the
whole industry, we'll just put a panel together and we'll give them a
year to look at it.' They knew they had to do something, but they
didn't want to eliminate the use."
To truly appreciate O'Dell's stance on belt air, you have to look at its history.
The Birth of an Issue
Belt air refers to air that is directed underground to ventilate
worker areas through the same tunnels in which conveyor belts transport
coal out of mines. The belt entry is the dirtiest and most fire-prone
entry in a mine, and many believe using it for ventilation exposes
miners to excessive amounts of highly flammable coal dust, which once
on fire would then vent directly to the miners' work areas and
In 1969, Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act
(Coal Act), which recognized the hazard of belt air and prohibited belt
and trolley haulage entries from also being used to provide ventilation
of working places. It also limited air velocities to the minimal amount
necessary to provide an adequate supply of oxygen, in order to help
prevent airways from carrying fire to working places. Yet Section
75.326 of the Coal Act provided a grandfather clause allowing
approximately 20 mines that were opened prior to March 30, 1970, to
develop new belt air ventilated areas where necessary. But the most
controversial item was the loophole that section 301(c) of the Coal
Act--and later under section 101(c) of the Federal Mine Safety and
Health Act of 1977 (the Mine Act)--provided with the PFM process, the
item Roberts claimed is used to circumvent standards.
The first PFM requesting the use of belt air was filed two years
later by Island Creek Coal Company for its Virginia Pocahontas No. 4
mine. Island Creek argued applying the standard would result in
decreased safety to miners due to the mine's excessive methane
liberation and the inherently poor roof conditions. O'Dell said the
UMWA opposed the PFM process but recognized some would be granted, so
the union came up with compromises that allowed it to ensure certain
additional safety factors were required. "We knew that they were going
to move forward and allow the use of belt air against our objections,
so we thought it was going to be smart for us to get involved in a
[PFM] process," O'Dell said. Island Creek's compromise was contingent
on the installation of a carbon monoxide (CO) monitoring system in the
Reinventing the Wheel
On Jan. 27, 1988, MSHA proposed revising safety standards for
ventilation of underground coal mines in the Federal Register (53 FR
2382) and on March 1989, MSHA's assistant secretary called for a
thorough review of safety factors associated with the use of belt air.
A committee was formed, and the ensuing report, "Belt Entry Ventilation
Review" (BEVR, 54 FR 35356), concluded that directing belt entry air to
the face can be at least as safe as other ventilation methods, provided
certain conditions are met that would significantly reduce the hazards
to miners. According to the BEVR report, from the approximately 60
currently granted belt air PFMs, three significant safety requirements
had emerged. The first was a more stringent CO monitoring requirement
that called for monitors every 1,000 feet rather than the previous
2,000 feet. Second, the 300 feet per minute (fpm) upper air velocity
restriction that came about in later Coal Act modifications was all but
eliminated because tests at the time demonstrated velocities above 300
fpm had no detrimental effect on belt flame propagation and actually
improved the sensor performance of CO monitors and smoke detectors.
Therefore, the BEVR report concluded, "there is no reason to limit the
velocity of air in the belt entry provided that the belt entry does not
become the primary intake aircourse." This was qualified by stating
that additional research was needed regarding air velocity's effect on
the spread of fire on materials other than the conveyor belt.
O'Dell said this backward logic--recommending higher air velocity
while asking whether it was more dangerous--was the result of a mine
operator-friendly administration. "It doesn't make any sense," he said.
"Ask any fire department what's one of the worst things you can do to a
fire: You put more oxygen on it, and it spreads more quickly. The same
thing holds true in a coal mine. It's the simple basics of a fire: You
have a flame, you have oxygen, you have a source, and it's going to
spread more quickly."
The BEVR report also called for further development of ongoing
conveyor belt flammability tests, requiring mine operators when
replacing or extending belts in areas of belt air ventilation to
install only whatever currently commercially available materials MSHA
had identified as improved. These tests, originally developed by the
Bureau of Mines in 1955, were designed to reduce or eliminate the
hazard of flame propagation along the belt so that when a fire source
is removed, the belt will self-extinguish; the tests were made
mandatory in 1970 by section 311(h) of the Coal Act, resulting in the
substitution of highly flammable rubber materials with polyvinyl
chloride (PVC) and styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR). There were also a
call for better belt maintenance, belt entry cleanup, rock dusting, and
recommendations that MSHA initiate development of performance standards
for CO monitors and smoke detectors suitable for use in underground
Regardless of the findings, the ensuing conflict that followed
between mine owners and labor in a seventh hearing to discuss the
report was enough to make MSHA drop the issue and finalize its
ventilation rule in 1992 without any provision to allow the use of belt
air. But the issue was not dead; it continued as an independent
In January 1992, the secretary of Labor appointed a second
committee (known as the Belt Air Advisory Committee, or BAAC) to make
"recommendations concerning the conditions under which air in the belt
entry could be safely used in the face areas of underground mines." The
BAAC report was submitted to the secretary in November 1992 and
contained 12 recommendations in support of the conclusion that belt air
could safely be used provided certain conditions were met--many of
which mirrored BEVR.
One of the recommendations echoed BEVR's insistence that further
guidance was needed on the use of CO monitors and smoke detectors as
early warning fire detection systems, but BAAC took it a step further
and developed a guidance of 14 items for what it now referred to as
Atmospheric Monitoring Systems (AMS). Other recommendations recognized
the importance of establishing best practices for the housekeeping and
maintenance of conveyor belts and increasing air velocity to ensure
proper performance of AMSs, which the BAAC majority felt should be set
to a minimum of 50 fpm.
Despite the additional support of the BAAC report, the issue was
still too controversial. It was left out of the agency's revised
ventilation rule on March 11, 1996.
Undeterred, MSHA decided the issue would be placed on its rulemaking
agenda for development as a separate proposed rule. On Jan. 27, 2003,
it published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on underground coal
ventilation that allowed for the use of belt air once certain controls
were implemented in mines with three or more entries. After five public
hearings, the rule was finalized April 2, 2004, in favor of using belt
air. O'Dell said this effectively created a one-size-fits-all approach
to mine safety that used the bare minimum requirements from decades of
negotiated safety requirements through the PFM process. "Those minimum
requirements, they kept those, but the additional requirements that the
local unions were able to hammer out with the operators, they just
completely wiped those off," O'Dell said. Ironically, one of MSHA's
justifications contained in the new rule in response to opposing
comments suggested it afforded an equal level of protection because it
followed the precedent set by past PFMs. It reads, "Protections under
the final rule are at least equal to those contained in granted belt
air petitions for modification (granted petitions) and, therefore,
provide the same or an increased level of protection currently afforded
Still skeptical that the 2007 panel may lead to any real changes or
compromises--such as the possible return to the PFM process--O'Dell is
adamant in his stance that what is really necessary is the complete
elimination of belt air use. "If you're going to have a petition that
is equal to or greater than what the law is, why don't you just comply
with what the law says to do now and do it right the first time.
Unfortunately, that's not the case," he said.
This article appeared in the March 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.
This article originally appeared in the March 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.