Panel requests fed mine data

Newly formed Utah commission is seeking MSHA's cooperation

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 11 2007 12:19 a.m. MDT

PRICE — Now that the rescue effort at the Crandall Canyon Mine has ended, state leaders are turning their attention to developing strategies to make mining safer.

That was the mind-set of Monday's initial organizing meeting of the Utah Mine Safety Commission, held at the Western Energy Training Center in Helper. It was the first opportunity for the governor's hand-picked, eight-member group to discuss how the state can work to prevent disasters like Crandall Canyon, which claimed the lives of six miners along with three rescuers.

The Utah tragedy has brought the safety of coal mining into question again as critics openly ask if everything is being done to keep workers safe.

Of the 17 states with underground mining operations, Utah is among seven with no state safety inspection programs for coal mines. For the past 30 years, Utah has instead followed federal Mine Safety and Health Administration safety regulations and enforcement.

In his opening comments Monday, commission chairman Scott Matheson Jr. reiterated the panel's mission is not to investigate the Crandall Canyon accident but to review and recommend future measures the state can take regarding mine safety and emergency responses.

The MSHA investigation of the Crandall Canyon Mine activities will proceed as representatives assess the underground mine safety there. Additionally, investigators will interview miners to obtain their perspective on the accounts and events of Aug. 6, the day of the initial collapse.

MSHA senior adviser and attorney Jim Crawford told the commission that MSHA will try to accommodate the commission's needs for information without compromising MSHA's probe. He cautioned that some specifics may be withheld until MSHA's investigation is complete.

Matheson was adamant in questioning Crawford, stating that the governor's commission should be given access to any information it needs. Matheson said how much cooperation the commission receives from MSHA will determine his panel's ability to do its assigned job.

"You are going to be talking to a lot of people who are going to tell you a lot of things, some of which is going to be relevant to what we need to know to do our work. And we'd like to have access to that information," Matheson said.

"I'm not asking you to provide us information that you are going to give to the public in general. I'm asking you for the information that the Labor Commission, a state agency, is going to have access to and that the governor's office is going to have access to."

Crawford responded that MSHA usually works closely with states "and there's an agreement that since they have common interests and purposes of investigating the cause of an accident and coming about with any enforcement resulting actions that we can share information for those reasons, but not with the public or any other entity that is not involved because it could compromise the investigation."

Matheson fired back that since the state does not have the resources to conduct its own probe, the commission relies on MSHA for pertinent information.

"There's no interest (by our commission) in compromising your investigation," Matheson said. "Our interest is in doing our work consistent with an investigation that you feel is thorough and meets all the confidentiality needs that it needs to meet.

"But at the same time, we'd like to have access to information that would help us in doing our work. And periodic updates and giving us information that you're going to give to the public, at least in my view, is not sufficient."

Matheson later said the commission will push for full cooperation from MSHA as it conducts its probe.

However, commission member Dennis O'Dell, administrator of occupational health and safety for the United Mine Workers of America, is not especially optimistic. He said his 30-plus years of experience in the mining industry has taught him MSHA has usually been reluctant to share information about its investigations.

O'Dell expects agency investigators to keep whatever findings they come up with "close to their chest" — a position Matheson said he understands but that he still believes there is a way where both his panel and MSHA will be able to do their jobs effectively while still sharing information.

"I think there is common ground there. We've just got to make sure we agree on what that common ground is. We'll push them (MSHA) for information that we think we need to do our job. And I'm confident that we can get there," he said.

One of the first agenda items Monday was a historical review of coal mining safety in Utah. According to MSHA, tens of thousands of coal miners have died nationwide in accidents since 1900, with the number of annual fatalities falling significantly year over year since 1948 when 999 workers perished.

Following that year, the number of deaths across the country dropped to 585, with fewer and fewer fatalities reported thereafter. Since 1993, few than 50 fatalities have been reported annually. Though mine safety has increased dramatically over the years, coal mining (particularly underground mining) is still considered one of the most dangerous occupations.


E-mail: jlee@desnews.com

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