U.S. mining regulator tightens coal mines safety rules

As families and friends of dead miners mark the second anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in West Virginia on April 5, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration announced it would issue its final set of rules for inspecting underground coal mines on Friday.

The new guidelines will require underground coal mine operators to examine more thoroughly and correct hazardous conditions that pose the greatest threat to miners.

In addition to the increased emphasis on conditions such as ventilation, methane, roof control and accumulation of combustible materials, the rule requires operators for the first time to record steps taken to correct the hazards.

Many of the conditions that led to the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine, the worst accident at a U.S. coal mine in four decades, says assistant secretary of labour for mine safety and health Joseph A. Main, are repeatedly found by MSHA inspectors in underground coal mines every year. Those hazards, he added, constitute violations to MSHA’s mandatory health and safety standards.

"As we've said so many times before, MSHA cannot be at every mine every day," Main added. "This rule places mine operators in a proactive -rather than reactive- role by requiring them to conduct examinations to identify a potentially hazardous condition before it results in a danger to miners."

Last year, U.S. Department of Labour officials concluded that the explosion could and should have been prevented by the operator, Massey Energy, which was bought in 2011 Alpha Natural Resources.  They said that evidence did not support Massey's claims that the explosion was caused by a sudden, unforeseen inflow of gas. A crack in the floor, which Massey had identified as the likely source of the gas, was found to be 'rootless', which means it was not connected to an area containing combustible gas.

The explosion was most likely started by a limited amount of methane or natural gas, probably ignited by the longwall shearer, they said. The ignition was allowed to occur because of missing and faulty water sprays.