Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's office said the fiscal downturn that began a few years after Crandall Canyon challenged the state on many fronts, including mine safety.
"Budget constraints were the unfortunate reality of the economic downturn and necessitated some very difficult decisions, including the Legislature's determination to reduce the budget for this office," said Ally Isom, Herbert's spokeswoman.
"In spite of reduced resources, the Labor Commission continues to strive to coordinate coal mine safety among federal and state agencies, industry, and key players."
Critics, however, believe the state's efforts fall short of being effective.
"We had hoped that after that commission that we might get a state mine safety agency that would help mines take a proactive, progressive approach to managing risks and hazards, and it didn’t work out that way," Nelson said. "The support from the state as an entity was not there to make it meaningful.”
O'Dell, who served as a member of the commission, said he remains disappointed in the outcome.
"I think it fell way short of what I would have like to have seen come out of it," he said. "I went in with the impression that we actually wanted to make a difference, but in the end, there had to be consensus from the group."
The commission surveyed 12 other coal mining states and found Utah and Colorado were at the bottom rung for state regulatory involvement. At the time, neither state had state mine inspectors, mine safety regulators or any oversight or enforcement functions.
Critics of robust state inspection programs like those that operate in West Virginia or Pennsylvania argue they duplicate what the federal government is already doing.
Nelson said there may be some truth to that assertion, especially if another by-the-book traffic cop approach is used and operators simply get twin sets of violations.
But O'Dell disagrees.
"I just think it makes sense the more eyes you have looking at mine safety, the more people you have concentrating on it, the more people you have doing inspections, the more people you have talking about it, the better it makes your mine, the safer it makes your mine, but I got overruled," he said. "The state did not want to go back to that."
The Utah way
Last year, after a fundraising initiative led by chief executive officers of two mines in Utah, the University of Utah's Center for Mine Safety and Health Excellence was established.
Nelson said the $1.5 million endowment was the result of mining executives seeing a need.
"After Crandall Canyon, a couple of companies really saw a need to make a change," he said. "We started working to educate the mining industry in Utah and the United States to understand there is a better way to manage mine safety."
That approach embraces safety as not just a goal but as a core value that is incorporated in every step of the operation.
"It can be done. The lead is being taken, in my opinion, not by government agencies but by individual companies who are saying they are going to comply with the law, keep MSHA happy and do everything they ask for, who say we are going to go beyond that because we don't want anybody to die or get hurt in our mines."
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