Mine questions recalled

Report on Crandall disaster will be released Thursday

Published: Tuesday, July 22 2008 12:05 a.m. MDT

Richard Stickler, the acting assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, speaks during a mine-safety symposium at the Sheraton Hotel in Salt Lake City on Monday.

Geoffrey McAllister, Deseret News

Nearly one year ago, the collapse at the Crandall Canyon Mine near Huntington left people demanding to know what caused it and who, if anyone, might be to blame.

A Mine Safety and Health Administration report was expected to shed light on those questions Monday during a mine-safety symposium in Salt Lake City, but the release of that report has been delayed until Thursday. Richard Stickler, acting assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said the agency needed extra time to have the document translated from English into Spanish for the benefit of some of the Crandall Canyon miners' families.

Stickler said Monday during an interview that MSHA certainly had a responsibility for approving the Crandall Canyon Mine plan and inspecting operations there, but that MSHA officials could only physically be there about 5 percent of the time while it was being mined.

"There's no way we can cover everything," Stickler said. But, he added, there were "obviously" some things missed that should have been caught: "We could not have been there to catch everything."

Six miners died in the original collapse last August, and their bodies were never recovered. Three rescuers died in a second collapse while trying to reach them.

Stickler said Monday that MSHA has made a commitment to not talk about results of the investigation into the Crandall Canyon collapse until victims' families have been talked to first.

Some people say mine co-owner Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, is to blame for the collapse. Others include MSHA in their accusations. Murray is named in a lawsuit filed last April by the victims' families.

"MSHA's finger is in this pie, too," said Mike Dalpiaz, international vice president for the United Mine Workers of America.

The Labor Department this past spring issued a report that said MSHA was negligent leading up to the Crandall Canyon collapse. University of Utah seismologists last month said the mine collapse set off a seismic event that registered as a 3.9 magnitude shock during a 50-acre cave-in. Initially, Murray had insisted an earthquake caused the collapse.

Dalpiaz, who is based in Price, noted that MSHA had agreed to the retreat mining that was happening inside the mine at the time of the collapse. Workers in the Crandall Canyon Mine were pulling "barrier pillars," which are much larger coal-based structures intended to provide added strength to a mine ceiling that is underneath a mountain. Pulling the barriers, Dalpiaz added, is "totally taboo," although it's not against regulations.

"Everybody else leaves them in there — you just don't mess with them," Dalpiaz said.

Some mines are allowed to pull pillars, he added, if it's in a plan that is agreed upon by regulators and the mine owner. Stickler said Monday that MSHA realized it needed to revisit some of its regulations after the Crandall Canyon accident.

"When we saw what happened at Crandall Canyon, certainly it became obvious to us that we need to take a second look at the roof-control plans that had been approved for deep cover mines," he said.

Miner Don Erickson, of Helper, died in the Crandall Canyon Mine collapse. His son Brandon Erickson was invited to the symposium in Salt Lake City this week.

Erickson said he planned on staying at the symposium for two full days of reports about safety improvements to the industry.

"I'm just here to support the safety aspect of it," Erickson said. Based on what he learned Monday, he added, "It seems it will be better in the future."

The agenda for the symposium was safety issues in underground coal mining. The keynote speaker, Brett Harvey, who is president and chief executive officer of Consol Energy, said mining companies must put top priority on safety. Consol owns 17 coal mines nationwide, including the Emery Deep Mine in Emery County.

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