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Miners get place to speak out

Safety is the focus of hearing, along with viability of industry

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 26 2007 12:19 a.m. MDT

Former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn, center, listens as Scott Matheson Jr., right, asks a question of Ray Bridge, safety manager for Arch Coal Inc., during a public hearing held by the Utah Mine Safety Commission Tuesday at Huntington Elementary.

Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News

HUNTINGTON — The main purpose of the Utah Mine Safety Commission's second formal meeting here Tuesday was to give members of the public a chance to voice their opinions and offer suggestions on how to make coal mining safer.

Both miners and residents took full advantage.

The eight-member panel heard from numerous presenters during the all-day session, including mining professionals with years of experience working in and around Utah coal mines. Local miners and citizens alike expressed their gratitude for allowing them the chance to speak out.

Lee Cratsenburg, a coal miner for 19 years, lost a relative in the Aug. 6 Crandall Canyon Mine collapse. She openly questioned whether the mine company followed proper safety standards.

"If the regulations would have been met at Crandall Canyon, I don't think the lives would have been lost that we did lose," she said. "Anytime coal becomes king, regulations seem to go under the rug."

Cratsenburg implored the commission to somehow ensure mine operators strictly adhere to safety standards, saying she wouldn't hesitate to sign up to go back into the mines if she knew they were less dangerous.

Two men who identified themselves as longtime miners suggested the panel talk to the mechanics and engineers who construct the safety walls and roof supports inside the mines. Getting their input might offer some helpful insights on how best to prevent future disasters, they said.

Among others who addressed the commission was retired miner Warren Oviatt, who is worried about the potential negative impacts too much regulation could have on the mining industry in Utah.

"As you look at some of the laws we've got, you can see how some of them are kind of ridiculous," Oviatt said.

He added the commission should try to look for ways to enhance safety without putting too many restraints on mine operators so their businesses can remain viable. He said focusing on enforcement of already existing laws is one way to improve safety.

"We need to make sure that rules and regulations are what we can look upon as something that all individuals involved feel like they need to follow and need to obey," he said.

Echoing his sentiments were members of the Emery County Board of Commissioners. Board chairman Drew Sitterud said safety is their utmost concern, too, but said any action must be based on common sense. He told the Mine Safety Commission to do whatever it could to make mining safer but not to put regulations on top of regulations that would cripple the industry.

Sitterud said one of the things that concerns him is the emotional response resulting from the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster. He told the panel not to allow that emotion to cloud their judgment.

"Use your head. Help the miners, don't hurt them," he said. "Listen to these miners, help them do what they need to do."

Some speakers focused on the importance of continuing education and training for improving mine safety. Allen Childs now heads an engineering firm but spent more than 20 years in mining, including nine years as foreman for what is now the Crandall Canyon Mine. He said safety should be the obligation of every person involved in mining from top-level executives to entry-level employees.

"Nobody is responsible for their health and safety but them. We need to have the most effective way of when we train people we have a response, not just a nod of the head. We need to have some way of measuring that," he said.

Training should not be just a once-a-year opportunity, he said. It should be done on a daily basis using quantifiable methods.

Allen said one of the goals of any mining operation should be to develop a culture of safety and reporting deficiencies when they are noticed. He said promoting a "safety-first" attitude could go a long way toward making individual mine operations safer.

He also talked about reducing barriers to a safe working environment. Noting many mine employees in Utah are immigrants, he said operators should do their best to help those workers understand their obligations and the company's responsibilities to them. He said the same would go for any employee no matter what their particular challenge might be.

One of the other topics that drew interest from the commission was the dwindling number of Utahns who are taking up mining as a career. Carl Pollastro, director of technical services and project development for Interwest Mining Co. said a huge percentage of the state's mining workforce will be ready to retire in the next ten years and there are not enough people currently in the pipeline to replace them.

"The resources that are needed to develop electrical generation are going to be ongoing for the next thirty years in this area at least. So we need to have someone to take their place and mine that fuel," Pollastro said.

The panel's next public meeting will be held Tuesday, Oct. 2, at the College of Eastern Utah in Price.


E-MAIL: jlee@desnews.com

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