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.

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 evacuation routes.

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 mine.

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 coal mines.

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 rulemaking effort.

Trying Again
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 miners."

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.

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