Special report: When a miner dies, does anybody care?

Published: Monday, Aug. 26 2013 2:06 p.m. MDT

Dacyn Jones is comforted during the funeral of his father and coal miner Elam Jones in Huntington Wednesday, March 27, 2013. A tunnel roof collapsed at the Rhino Mine about 10 miles west of Huntington, killing Jones.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

HUNTINGTON — Elam Jones was just 29 when an eight-ton slab of rock crushed him to death and injured his cousin in March.

Men who knew Jones, who know mining, say they don't need an investigation to tell them what went wrong: They blame the investigator, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, for insisting on a mining roof control plan they say isn't safe for Utah mines.

"It's a cookie-cutter approach that is going to get more people killed," said one miner, who spoke on condition his name be withheld to protect his job. "It is a good tool to use, but it is not god."

Interviews over the past five months with miners familiar with Jones' death, multiple industry experts and a review of lengthy investigations probing the 2007 Crandall Canyon disaster reveal that any opportunity for the state to make a real difference in mine safety was sidestepped, left unfunded, and brought little change to one of Utah's most dangerous industries.

The state, which relinquished any of its enforcement oversight in 1988, has adopted a program of mine safety that has no regulatory teeth and has been reduced to a part-time role critics say isn't effective.

The Utah Mine Safety Commission, which rose out of the horror of the Crandall tragedy that killed nine men, has since been disbanded, and recommendations that required any signficant amount of money have been left untouched.

One of the safety commission's recommendations dealt specifically with the state funding research to find out ways in which Utah coal and its deep underground mines differ from Eastern mines.

It never happened.

Those differences, veteran miners say, are being ignored by MSHA's insistence that mine operators use a computer program called ARMPS, or Analysis of Retreat Mining Pillar Stability.

The program, developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, has been widely used for about 15 years, according to the agency, and is considered a reliable design technique when used properly. It was developed from an extensive database of real-life case studies of successful and not-so-successful pillar designs in mining.

But Jurgen Brune, a research professor at the Colorado School of Mines, said the overall basis of the program relies on case studies from Appalachian mines.

"It makes assumptions about the strength of the coal. … It is not a very good tool for Utah mines."

Jones' death at the Rhino Coal Mine in Huntington Canyon, Emery County, marked the first coal mining fatality in Utah since six men were trapped in a catastrophic coal outburst at the Crandall Canyon Mine on Aug. 6, 2007. In that accident, roof-supporting pillars failed, violently ejecting coal over a half-mile area.

Ten days later, two mine employees and a mine safety inspector were killed in another outburst of coal during a rescue attempt.

The original six miners' bodies remain entombed at the Crandall Canyon Mine, which has since been sealed and left idle. Out of the tragedy emerged questions over mine safety and action to determine if Utah was doing enough to protect the lives of miners.

Then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., said he wanted answers and by executive order created the Utah Mine Safety Commission to deliver them and a list of recommendations.

But as the attention over mine safety, public questioning and community support for reforms quieted, no real change happened.

"I think the state as a whole missed an opportunity," said Mike Nelson, chair of the Department of Mining Engineering at the University of Utah and assistant director of the university's Center for Mining Safety and Health Excellence.

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