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.
Despite the risks, MSHA "could not show that it did everything appropriate to ensure the Crandall Canyon plan was sufficient ... did not assure that its districts had an adequate process for reviewing and approving the plan."
MSHA is supposed to require that each of its district's Standard Operating Procedures address 20 minimum controls.
"District 9 did not address 12 of these 20 controls," the Office of the Inspector General adds.
At one point, a first-year roof control engineer ran a computer model that identified inconsistencies in a proposed plan. Later, an MSHA official met with the operator and, according to an MSHA letter, resolved the differences in favor of the mine operator's engineering result.
MSHA did not consider findings of inspections by another federal agency, the Bureau of Land Management. BLM land was leased for the mine, and BLM inspects mines on its property at least four times a year.
"I have been concerned about pulling pillars in this environment with mining a narrow block with little coal barriers to mined-out blocks on both sides," a BLM inspector wrote on July 12, based on his inspection of the North Barrier on Feb. 27, 2007.
"So far no inordinate pillar stresses have been noted, though thing(s) should get interesting soon."
The BLM carried out a special inspection after a severe bump on the North Barrier March 11. That bump forced the end of mining in the area, but mining continued in the South Barrier area. The BLM report on that incident, dated Aug. 13 after the accidents in the South Barrier area said extensive rib coal was thrown into the entryway.
"Stress overrides ... were very concerning," the BLM added.
Although that BLM report was not finalized until after the accidents, the observations "could have been provided verbally (to MSHA) if an agreement to exchange information had been in place."
Richard E. Stickler, acting assistant secretary for Mine Safety and Health, wrote to Lewis on Wednesday that despite the inspection involving BLM information, "none of MSHA's criteria for approving a roof control plan included consultation with the Bureau of Land Management."
Lewis' response to that was sharp: "We agree that MSHA's procedures did not require it to obtain or share information with BLM. However, they should have."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, commented, "While not the final word on Crandall Canyon, this report is another piece of the puzzle that gives us a clearer picture of the tragedy and outlines some steps that MSHA can take to make mining safer." He said in a release that the report shows "MSHA must do a better job documenting how it approves, monitors and enforces roof-control plans. The process must be transparent as possible."
He added that it is incumbent on MSHA to carry out the report's recommendations.
Hatch, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., are senior members of the committee that requested the report.
Enzi said in their joint press release that "MSHA must fully and immediately address these recommendations to be more vigilant about the safety of our nation's miners.
"Roof-safety plans are essential to mine safety, and the IG's report raises a number of serious concerns about how MSHA reviews and approves these plans."
Added Isakson, "The report demonstrates that a top priority of MSHA should be to target its finite resources as effectively as possible." Areas that should be address include research into better technology, acquiring additional technical expertise and developing better safety equipment, he added.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said in a separate press release that the report "confirms that MSHA clearly failed to fulfill its duty to protect the Crandall Canyon miners. The report's conclusions underscore the urgent need for reform."
Kennedy called for MSHA to more carefully assess the risk before allowing mining companies to "subject miners to such dangerous conditions."
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., issued a statement saying the report shows "miners performing retreat mining in this country remain at serious risk because of MSHA's deeply flawed process for reviewing and approving retreat mining plans."
Members of the news media who apparently had "fast and not so good" safety training were allowed into the mine during rescue operations, he noted. This happened "despite objections from other MSHA officials. Assistant Secretary Stickler should better explain that decision, which may have put people's lives at risk unnecessarily."
Matthew Faraci, spokesman for MSHA, wrote, "While the confirmation by the Inspector General that there was no evidence of undue influence in approving the roof plan for the Crandall Canyon mine is welcomed; we take exception to the Inspector General's headline-grabbing language that is unsupported by facts or evidence."
Mine union president Cecil E. Roberts, said in his release, "This report validates what the UMWA has maintained from the very beginning of the investigation: MSHA did not follow its own regulations and procedures."Roberts added that independent investigations are needed because "when MSHA investigates a mine fatality, all too often it is also investigating itself."