MSHA Proposes Belt Air Rule

MSHA published a proposed rule in the June 19 Federal Register that includes requirements for improved flame-resistant conveyor belts, fire prevention and detection in belt entries, standardized tactile signals on lifelines and the approval of belt air used for ventilation in underground mines.

“Belt air” is the practice of bringing air into mines for miners to breathe through the same tunnels that are used to take coal out of the mine on conveyor belts.

"The objective of this proposed rule is to improve mine safety by significantly reducing the hazard of conveyor belt fires in underground coal mines," said MSHA Administrator Richard E. Stickler.

Under the proposal, underground coal mine operators would be required to purchase conveyer belts that are more flame resistant than those under the existing standard beginning 1 year after the effective date of the final rule. Existing belts would be permitted until replacement is necessary. Mine operators also would be required to replace point-type heat sensors with carbon monoxide sensors, install smoke sensors, improve belt maintenance and standardize lifeline signals to identify direction of travel to the surface, storage caches for self-contained self-rescuers, obstructions to escape and refuge alternatives.

Additionally, the proposed rule would require the primary intake escapeway to have a higher ventilating pressure than the belt entry, establish airlocks where high air pressure differentials exist between air courses on personnel doors along escapeways, establish minimum and maximum air velocities in belt entries and require reduced dust levels in belt entries for mines that use air from the belt entry to ventilate the working section.

MSHA’s proposed rule would implement the recommendations of the Technical Study Panel on the Utilization of Belt Air and the Composition and Fire Retardant Properties of Belt Material in Underground Coal Mining, which Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao established in accordance with Section 11 of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act of 2006. The panel, composed of government officials, academics and consultants, conducted an independent scientific engineering review and issued its report and recommendations last December.

Kennedy Spokesperson: Belt Air “Dangerous”

Some safety advocates, however, maintain that prohibiting belt air use in mines would be a better tactic.

"The disaster at the Alma mine demonstrated that the use of belt air in mines is extremely dangerous,” said Melissa Wagoner, spokesperson for Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. “Belt air should be prohibited except when no other protection is available to guarantee miners' safety. By failing to take this step in the proposed rule, MSHA has missed the opportunity to fully protect miners. Senator Kennedy hopes that MSHA will strengthen the rule before it becomes final to give miners the safety they deserve."

MSHA will conduct four public hearings on the proposed rule and will accept comments until Sept. 8, 2008.

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