2014 SME Annual Meeting & Exhibit (SME 2014): Leadership in Uncertain Times. Englewood, CO: Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration, Inc., 2014 Jul; :661-665
Explosions in underground mines and surface facilities such as processing plants are caused by confined accumulations of combustible dust and/or flammable gas mixed with air in the presence of an ignition source. Underground explosions can be prevented by minimizing methane concentrations through methane drainage and ventilation, by adding sufficient rock dust to inert the coal dust, and by eliminating ignition sources. The effectiveness of rock dust in arresting explosion propagation was proven by experiment and practice (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11). The precise mechanism by which rock dust (generally pulverized limestone dust) quenches flame has not been fully explained, but is believed to be absorption of thermal energy from the heated gases and absorption of radiant energy, which reduces the preheating of unburned coal particles ahead of the flame front. One measurable aspect of explosibility is incombustible content. In order to determine whether enough rock dust is applied, 30 CFR1 § 75.403, Maintenance of Incombustible Content of Rock Dust, requires at least 80% incombustible content on the roof, ribs, and floor of underground coal mines. 30 CFR § 75.403-1 further defines the incombustible content as follows: "Moisture contained in the combined coal dust, rock dust and other dusts shall be considered as a part of the incombustible content of such mixture." In order to determine the incombustible content of the mine dust, samples of deposited dust from specified areas in a mine must be collected, analyzed, and then compared with the minimum standard of 80%. The traditional low temperature ashing (LTA) approach to determine if a coal and rock dust mixture is compliant with the inerting requirement consumes the coal dust and considers the remaining material to be inert. Compliance with the law is then determined by comparing the measured percentage of inert material of the representative band sample with the pre-established requirement of 80%. The incombustible content of the sample includes rock dust, the amount of moisture as received at the lab, and the inherent ash in the coal. The LTA method is not itself a direct measure of explosibility but is a surrogate that calculates a single parameter associated with large-scale Bruceton Experimental Mine (BEM) explosion test results conducted with dry rock dust. This method assumes a homogenous mixture with no layering of rock dust and coal dust. Float coal dust is a serious explosion hazard if it accumulates on top of the rock dust and is not mixed with the rock dust (12). Mitchell and Nagy (13) studied the effectiveness of water as an inerting agent for the coal dust explosion hazard. The study emphasized that surface water evaporates readily from dusts. Thus, in a passageway where the dust is wet, changes in weather or the ventilation system could dry the dust and make it unsafe in a relatively short period of time. Where adequate rock dust has been applied, this drying effect is not a factor. However, if the mine depends upon the moisture content as part of the incombustible content, fluctuations in the dust surface moisture within a mine can render moisture content an ineffective and inconsistent measure of safety. Additionally, if sufficient moisture is absorbed and subsequently relinquished by rock dust, a cake can form and render the rock dust ineffectual. The trend has long been recognized that mine explosions occur primarily during the winter season when the humidity is low for long periods of time (14, 15, 16). In light of this trend and due to the potential variability of the moisture content of the dust, it may not be prudent to include variable surface moisture in the total incombustible content of the sample. Instead, surface moisture should be viewed as an additional safety measure as long as the rock dust is dispersible. However, moisture limits the ability of the rock dust to disperse and can significantly reduce its capacity to effectively inert propagating explosions (2, 13, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22). Given the methods by which the as-received moisture and incombustible content are determined, dust samples from the 2010 MSHA database were assessed to determine the variability of the moisture content throughout a year and how often the measured as-received moisture might have affected the dust explosibility determination if removed. The findings were then verified by observation in laboratory studies and within the NIOSH OMSHR Safety Research Coal Mine (SRCM).