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

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

The Mine Safety and Health Administration counters that its emphasis on pillar design, ARMPS and other regulatory steps it has taken after Crandall Canyon have notably improved the safety of retreat mining.

During the five-year period from 2008 to 2012, there were just two fatalities from ground failures during retreat mining nationwide, compared with 13 during 2003-2007 and 12 from 1998-2002.

Nelson said high-profile mine disasters like Crandall and the Sago and Upper Big Branch mines in West Virginia have put a tremendous amount of political pressure on the mine safety administration to police mine operators who are not complying with the law, with the citations to prove it.

But this "traffic-cop" approach, Nelson said, also leads to temptation for mine operators to go along to get along when it comes to mine safety and approve, for example, mine design plans that are spit out by a computer.

"It is easy for an inspector to say this is what the computer said, so it is OK," he said. "It makes it almost by default that people go around site-specific solutions that will work so they can comply with the regulations."

While the mine safety administration says ARMPS is preferred, other design methods may be used if the operator can substantiate the results.

Nelson said that's easy to say, but tough to do. He pointed to a New Mexico coal mine where operators wanted a different ventilation plan. He said it took three years to get the approval of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Any deviation from the computer analysis would be as difficult, he said, despite local and unique circumstances that might merit another design.

"The computer program gives you an answer, but it's based on all the assumptions you put into it, and that might change," he said. "I don't think you can confidently use any computer program to manage ground control without having an understanding of the local conditions and being able to respond to them."

He said the federal government uses a regulatory system that has become antiquated.

"What it comes down to, in my opinion, is an outdated approach to managing safety," he said. "They make rules and enforce compliance. They penalize operators if they don't comply to the letter."

Joe Main, the head of MSHA, said he believes mine safety is moving in the right direction.

"There have been a lot of changes since Crandall," he said. "We still have more to do, there's no question about that either, but I think we can arrive at a point in this country where mining deaths are a rarity."

In 1977, the year the Mine Safety Act was passed by Congress, 273 miners lost their lives in the United States. Fast forward to 2011, which was the safest year on record and surpassed by falling fatality rates in 2012.

"What that has told us is we can prevent these mining deaths."

Mine families

Jones came from a tradition of mining. His father, Derk, has worked for 36 years in the mining industry, and his grandfather spent 40 years in mining.

His family knows mining comes with risks. His mother, Julie Jones, said Elam knew he would die in a coal mine and that's how he would have wanted to die.

But Kevin Stricklin, MSHA administrator for coal mine safety, said he doesn't accept the notion that mining is risky and people will die.

"It is an industry that you don’t get many chances. It is heavy equipment, roof falls, ignitions and you got to get it right, not only the first time, but every time. And it is apparent to me that something didn’t go right and a fatality occurred. Our job now is to figure out what happened and make sure it never happens again."

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