Commission hears emotional testimony from mining families in Price
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.
With the imminent loss of a significant number of workers looming, many in the local energy industry are focusing on developing enhanced education and training programs. Topping said Utah can create a world-class learning and training model by using state of the art simulators and technology similar to that used in flight instruction, allowing workers to experience various problem mining situations in a virtual environment. This would help workers improve their decision-making abilities and develop situation-based hands-on competency in their jobs resulting in enhanced safety, he said.
But Topping admitted all that training and education would be meaningless if the state cannot figure out a way to increase recruitment of qualified candidates.
He said another part of the difficulty of getting more people into energy jobs is convincing families to move to the small towns that are typically home to mining operations. Too often, he said, talented people take the good-paying mining jobs, make the money then leave, which has to change in order for the industry to remain viable.
"The communities have to embrace this new diverse population that's coming in and set up the infrastructure to support that. The schools, highways, and cultural activities that support families coming and making the investment to stay here."
In order to get families to commit, Topping and other energy industry advocates said the state will have to make its own commitment to invest in the needed education and training programs.
"To run this mining program, we're going to need $1.5 to $2 million," he said.
Currently, those dollars are provided through a federal grant, but ideally the entire amount would come from the state, he said. Topping said federal dollars require more time, red tape, and resources that could be better spent on Utah's workers. The commission said it would consider making a funding recommendation to the governor and lawmakers, but did not specify a particular amount.
On Tuesday, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) announced Utah is one of seven recipients of a total of $500,000 in grant funds for education and training at underground coal mines. The College of Eastern Utah will receive $54,000 for mine emergency training.CEU vice president of workforce education Miles Nelson said the state already receives $166,113 from MSHA to fund certification training and safety programs for Utah miners. That funding amount is based the number of miners in the state.
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