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System failed mine workers, families

By John Florez

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, March 17 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Bob Murray talks to the media about putting in a robot and drilling another hole, he also introduced "the real heroes, that I love" Dave Canning, left and Mike Glasson both of Price who have been working non-stop for 3 weeks to drill holes at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Huntington, Utah Sunday, August 26, 2007. August Miller/ Deseret Morning News

August Miller, Deseret News

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"It doesn't surprise me at all. … The whole system has failed these men," said Wendy Black, upon hearing the mine owner had been charged criminally in violating federal safety laws, but not directly for the death of her husband and eight other miners, in the Crandall Mine disaster of 2007.

Last Wednesday, the mine owner pled guilty to the charges in federal court and paid a $500,000 fine, which outraged the judge over the "miniscule" penalty. State and federal mine safety laws have no real enforcement powers with adequate penalties to correct violations. Mine owners know they can keep delaying compliance with regulations by constantly challenging them administratively. When forced to comply, it seems they finally pay the small fine as the cost of doing business.

Mine owners have been able to deal with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, by lobbying and stonewalling. Nationally, in the past, many mine owners/operators automatically appealed 100 percent of MSHA safety citations. Crandall Canyon Mine owners/operators contested 271 of the 273 citations at its Utah mines from October 2007 through April 2008.

In spite of the statewide mourning and vigils over the death of the miners in 2007 and the public vow that such a tragedy should never happen again, not much has changed. Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. appointed a commission on how to prevent such disasters and determine if the state should play a role toward that effort. The commission decided federal laws were sufficient. Rather than recommending steps to prevent accidents, it focused on recovery — training miners to know what to do after an accident. The commission failed to recommend regulations that would require mine owners to pass safety inspections before the issuance of a permit.

The commission made 45 recommendations, primarily focusing on responding to disasters rather than preventing them. To make matters worse, the legislature quickly adopted the recommendations with barely a whisper. Something is wrong when lawmakers debate extensively on passing a law making animal cruelty a felony and yet quickly, and without debate, adopt the commission's recommendations that do not address preventing disasters and continue to put miners' lives at stake. In addition, the commission added a token and toothless Utah Office of Coal Mine Safety in the Utah Industrial Commission.

The commission and Legislature failed to focus on promoting mine safety. Rather than appeasing mine owners, the state should protect the safety of mine workers by passing laws that focus on prevention. This should include inspection and certification of the safety of mines in Utah consistent with federal MSHA laws and regulations — or applicable state statutes/regulations — and inspection of mines randomly and/or after complaints are received.

The Division of Oil, Gas and Mining is responsible for issuing permits; however, before a permit is issued, it should have the signature of the Industrial Commission certifying the facility is a safe and healthy workplace. The Division should conduct annual inspections of all mines in Utah and submit an annual report of findings to the governor; immediately investigate any mine accident, make findings and issue citations, including what corrective action must be taken; have the power to impose penalties for failure to comply, including closing the mine; and report the findings and decision to the governor. Individuals should be able to file complaints of possible violations and be protected from retaliation by employers for reporting the complaint.

For a state that values hard work, families and the rule of law, our political leaders failed to reflect those moral standards. They dismissed the agony of our community and especially of the families who lost their loved ones for the benefit of mine owners.

We vowed that such a disaster would never happen again. But Wendy Black had it right: the whole system failed these men, and still needs fixing.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education.

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