Past-due methane rule moving forward to public comment - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Past-due methane rule moving forward to public comment

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A methane rule that was a part of a coal mine safety bill to protect state coal miners from  explosions is moving forward after a state board deliberated months past its legislative deadline.

The Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety, charged with developing the rule, is split between union and industry representatives. The two sides have debated on several points of the rule long past their October deadline.

In a meeting March 26, the board finally agreed to move the rule into a public comment stage, without the final contentious point. The law requires that mine equipment be shut down at 1.25 percent concentration of methane in the atmosphere for a "sustained period."

Methane occurs naturally in coal mines, and the idea is to shut down elements of the mine equipment that could ignite the methane. Industry's side argued that too short of a time could cause "nuisance" shut-downs should the concentration only momentarily hit 1.25 percent.

"If it's just a little poof at 1.25, the sustained period of time would anticipate that not being a shutdown the cutter head situation," said Terry Hudson, a board member representing industry. "… It's contentious and I know that."

Federal law already requires that mine equipment be automatically shut down at 2 percent concentrations of methane or greater.

Chris Hamilton, board member and vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, urged members to pull together and begin the public process comment without specifically defining the phrase "sustained period" before any of their progress toward an agreement "unravels."

"I am very concerned over the amount of time that has expired on this issue," Hamilton said.  "If we're in agreement with 90 percent of this rule, I think we should start the rulemaking process."

Even after the board has passed a rule, it is estimated that it could take several years for manufacturers to develop new methane monitors. The new monitors would be required due to the 1.25 percent requirement – current monitors only read out to 2 digits.

One mine safety equipment manufacturer attending the meeting suggested that reading out methane to the hundredth of a percent is "unrealistic." Developing and getting approval of the new monitors, he estimated, could take up to two years "assuming everything goes well."

The group has asked a representative of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration to attend next month's meeting to further advise on the rulemaking.