In our opinion: Message to mines

Published: Tuesday, March 13 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Rescuers work near the blocked tunnel in the Crandall Canyon Mine, Aug. 8, 2007.

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

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Whether, as U.S. Attorney David B. Barlow said last week, the two misdemeanor criminal charges and fines levied against the company that operated the ill-fated Crandall Canyon mine will send an industrywide message to obey the law remains to be seen.

Certainly, some relatives of the nine men who died because of a 2007 collapse at the Emery County mine consider it to be a message of the wrong kind. The two charges do not directly concern the collapse or the deaths of the miners or rescue workers, but rather earlier violations, including failing to report a so-called "bounce" that disrupted mining activity within the 15 minutes required by law. If the two misdemeanor charges and the $500,000 fine were supposed to bring a sense of closure to this tragedy, they would argue, these were offset by statements from Genwal Resources Inc.'s attorneys that the company still maintains its mine was safe.

The sad truth is nothing can bring back the lives of those who died. But as mining remains an important economic activity that helps to fuel the living standards Americans have come to expect, the best that can be hoped is for a resolution that changes the culture of mining and forces operators to consider the benefits of safety versus the costs of violations.

Statistics make it clear that mining has gotten safer in recent decades, reducing annual mining deaths from 1,500 or so during the Great Depression to only a few dozen in recent years. And yet, in meetings with the Deseret News editorial board following the Crandall Canyon disaster, the head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration at the time, Richard Stickler, painted a troubling picture of the industry's culture.

Stickler, himself an underground miner earlier in life, said federal inspectors often would receive threats or feel intimidated by mine operators and miners. Miners, he said, would sometimes react by saying, "Look, you're going to shut us down. You're writing all these violations. I'm going to lose my job." In reality, as Stickler often said, every law and rule on the books exists because some miner somewhere lost his life. But the miners tend to react out of fear of mine operators who view inspectors with suspicion and don't encourage workers to report safety problems.

Stickler's MSHA wasn't problem-free, either. Crandall Canyon used dangerous retreat mining methods that heightened the risks of collapse. MSHA's Denver office had evaluated and approved those plans even though a sophisticated computer analysis at the administration's Pittsburgh office likely would have revealed serious problems.

Indeed, there are messages to be sent in several directions from the Crandall disaster. The industry, however, can do the most to prevent further disasters. It would do well to promote safety to the point where miners are rewarded, not punished, for finding potential violations.

Crandall's owners have had to endure horrible publicity, fines both from MSHA and last week's court settlement, as well as criminal charges and, worst of all by far, the loss of nine men's lives. The message to other mining operators ought to be that the upfront costs of safety and transparency pale in comparison to the costs of a disaster. We hope it is received.

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