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

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

He said none of the dozen coal mining deaths that have happened across the country this year could be described as chance or haphazard.

"Not one of them can I say, 'Well that is just mining and that is just what happens in coal mining.' There are reasons they should not be happening, so I will never take the position that it is dangerous and deaths are going to occur."

Dennis O'Dell, administrator of occupational health and safety at United Mine Workers of America, agrees.

"These deaths are not acceptable. There are thousands of coal miners who go to work every day and come home at the end of their shift safely. If we can do it at certain locations, why can't we do it everywhere?" he said.

"This young man, he was 29. He was a kid. What is the difference between his dad who has had a long surviving career, who has worked OK at Deer Creek and his son, who worked at this operation where he got fatally injured?"

Odell said the sad truth is that regulations come about slowly and generally in response to tragedy.

"Anytime you see any significant changes in mine safety or any improvements, it is because some coal miner had to die to get it done," he said. "To get mine safety changed, it comes with the bloodshed of a miner. It is something that has been really hard for me to stomach."

Changes stalled

After Crandall Canyon, the Utah Mine Safety Commission delivered a set of recommendations aimed at improving mine safety in Utah. That was in January of 2008, just a few months after the Crandall disaster.

The commission chair, Scott Matheson Jr., said in his statement to the governor that if the question of the day was if Utah was doing everything it could to promote mine safety, the obvious answer was no.

"We have learned that the mining conditions at issue are different in Utah compared to anywhere else. We have further learned that our state does about as little as any other state to promote safety in coal mining."

In a state where there is skepticism and criticism over exclusive federal control over local economic activity, Matheson noted that Utah not only lost its role in making working conditions safer, but willingly relinquished it entirely to the federal government.

Utah has a mine certification program, but no formal mine inspection program or any authority to impose safety changes.

In 2008, with the Utah Legislature's passage of the Coal Mine Safety Act, the Utah Office of Coal Mine Safety was established. Initial funding of $250,000 paid for a full-time director, an office worker and a full-time certification program.

By early 2010, that director had stepped down, and, due to financial constraints, the position was reduced to part time and left unfilled until July of 2011.

When Huntsman left office, the Utah Mine Safety Commission was disbanded, despite pleas by at least one member, Huntington Mayor Hilary Gordon, to keep it going.

"The problem all comes back to money, and people are expendable," Gordon said.

Sherrie Hayashi, commissioner of the Utah Labor Commission — the entity in which the Office of Mine Safety falls — said she believes the office remains an effective tool, even if it lacks enforcement powers.

"It is a very different landscape than when Crandall Canyon happened," she said. "We are doing what we are supposed to be doing."

Mine safety director David "Kent" Houghton said he regularly visits Utah's coal mines and meets with the operators' safety departments.

"I am there as another set of eyes and then I report to the Labor Commission."

Houghton, who has an office in Price, said the financial climate has been such that "anything with funding (recommendations) has not gone very far."

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