Commission hears emotional testimony from mining families in Price

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 3 2007 4:29 p.m. MDT

Colleen Byrge speaks to the Utah Mine Safety Commission during the public comment portion of their third meeting, held at the College of Eastern Utah Jennifer Leavitt Student Center on Tuesday. Byrge is the grandmother of Kristen Kimber, ex-wife of Brandon Kimber, one of three killed in a rescue attempt at the Crandall Canyon mine collapse in August.

Liz Martin, Deseret Morning News

PRICE — The Utah Mine Safety Commission heard emotional testimony from residents at its third meeting Tuesday, held on the campus of the College of Eastern Utah, while industry officials warned the panel of a looming shortage of mine workers.

Through tears, Colleen Byrge told the commission about how her father and husband both survived separate fatal mine explosions years ago. She said she has two sons who work in coal mines today, "and every day, I pray for their safety."

She added, "I don't know what could have been done better" following the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster, and praised Huntington Mayor Hilary Gordon for her work during the aftermath. Byrge asked the commission to do what it could to help make mining safer for workers today.

Another Price resident, Donald Sheya, condemned the Bush administration for what he considered a potential cover-up regarding the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster.

"When I see (President) Bush and (Vice President Dick) Cheney trying to hide behind the things the federal regulatory agency has compiled, it looks like to me the beginning of a whitewash. The federal government doesn't seem to be interested in miners," he said. "It looks like to me at the federal level, the mine owners are very well represented, along with the rest of business. My problem is who's representing the miners?"

Other speakers expressed concern for the future of Utah's energy industry, noting the dwindling number of new workers in mining. Fewer young people are choosing mining as a career, which could diminish the future of the energy industry in Utah, speakers told the commission.

The meeting provided an opportunity for Price residents to talk about the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster and offer their comments about mining in Utah. The mine's collapse Aug. 6 trapped six men, and their bodies were never recovered. Three rescuers died 10 days after the initial collapse while trying to reach them.

Despite the tragedy, many residents at the commission meeting spoke about the need for education and training programs to interest more people in mining and other energy-production careers. Without a new generation of workers for the industry, the state risks the demise of one of its major economic drivers, they said.

"We have to go out and attract new populations to come in and be a part of this solution," said Robert Topping, program director of the Western Energy Training Center at the College of Eastern Utah.

Over the next 10 years, Utah will lose 70 percent of southeastern Utah's highly qualified energy workers to retirement. With fewer young people choosing the oil, gas and mining industries for professions, Topping said, certain students in elementary and high schools should be targeted.

"We want to engage the disenfranchised student because that's generally who does well in this industry," he said.

Most students "who are turned off" by school lose interest "because they are constantly challenged to know something rather than to do something," he said.

The energy industry requires hands-on ability, so getting those students connected to a "doing" industry would allow them to flourish, he added.

Topping said the need for new workers is critical and must be addressed immediately or there will be a crisis in the next decade. About 1,400 Utah workers will leave coal mining in the next year, and there are already 600 jobs currently unfilled in the state.

Over the next 10 years, Topping said, as many as 12,000 of Utah's 14,000 mining jobs will be lost due to retirement or workers choosing to leave the industry.

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