MSHA deemed 'negligent'

Inspector general blasts agency over mine tragedy

Published: Tuesday, April 1 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

The Labor Department issued a blistering report Monday charging the Mine Safety and Health Administration was negligent leading up to the Crandall Canyon Mine disasters of August 2007.

On Aug. 6, six miners were killed outright or trapped to die later when a "bump" happened at the mine, located in Emery County. Coal under pressure blasted out at high velocity, and part of the mine collapsed. Ten days later, three rescue workers were killed in another accident while trying to reach the six men.

With the release of the long-awaited report by the department's Office of Inspector General, some members of Congress and the president of the United Mine Workers of America called for reforms at MSHA. Meanwhile, MSHA agreed with report recommendations but took exception to the "negligent" label.

Elliot P. Lewis, the assistant inspector general who signed the report, considered the objection and replied, "MSHA's actions and inactions, taken as a whole, lead us to conclude that MSHA lacked care and attention in fulfilling its responsibilities to protect miners. ... Our findings and recommendations remain unchanged."

The audit did not draw conclusions about whether the mine operator exerted undue influence on MSHA. The inspector general's office issued a subpoena to Murray Energy, one of the mine owners, seeking written information, but some materials was redacted. Also, "we attempted to interview employees of Murray Energy and its subsidiaries, but they declined on the advice of their counsel."

The audit was requested by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee. The title of the 74-page report bluntly states, "MSHA Could Not Show It Made the Right Decision in Approving the Roof Control Plan at Crandall Canyon Mine."

Other points made by the office include:

• "Despite the critical importance of roof control to the high-risk retreat mining proposed for the South Barrier of Crandall Canyon, MSHA could not show that it did everything appropriate to ensure the Crandall Canyon roof control was sufficient to protect miners."

• MSHA lacked a rigorous, transparent review and approval process for roof-control plans consisting of explicit criteria and plan evaluation factors, appropriate documentation, and active oversight and supervision by MSHA headquarters and District 9 management. MSHA District 9, based in Denver, regulates mining operations in most of the West, including Utah.

• "Once the plan was approved, MSHA could not demonstrate that it had adequately reassessed the roof control plan at Crandall Canyon or that the mine operator had properly instructed miners about roof control plans and procedures."

• Concerning regular quarterly inspections, MSHA inspectors "did not document the work they performed or the basis for their conclusions in addressing these responsibilities."

• MSHA "lacked guidance on appropriate non-rescue activities" when it allowed media representatives into the mine during the rescue effort.

The mine is owned by Murray Energy, with headquarters in Cleveland, and Intermountain Power Agency, a Utah cooperative that generates electricity for communities in Utah and California. Crandall Canyon was operated by Genwal Resources Inc., a partially owned subsidiary of UtahAmerica Energy, which is owned by Murray Energy, says the report.

Crandall Canyon miners were using a technique called pillar extraction, which the report says is a high-risk underground mining technique to increase coal recovery. In the process, also called retreat mining, miners remove support pillars of coal as they retreat toward the entrance, allowing the roof to collapse behind them. The deeper the mine, the more pressure from the overburden and the more likely for coal bounces or bumps.

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