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MSHA report on Utah fatality: Operator knew of 'worsening' conditions, allowed mining to continue

Published: Monday, Dec. 16 2013 5:02 p.m. MST

Julie and Dirk Jones talk about the death of their son Elam Jones, who died in a collapse at the Rhino Mine, at the Huntington City Hall in Huntington on Saturday, March 23, 2013.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Operators of the Rhino mine knew the mine was not properly caving and conditions were worsening, yet they continued to mine until a 7-ton roof fall killed one of their employees.

The conclusion of a federal investigation detailed Monday by the U.S. Department of Labor pointed to an inadequate roof control plan for the conditions encountered, leading to bolts shearing off and the collapse of a 8-foot-wide, 16-foot-long section of the roof.

Elam Jones, 29, a continuous mining machine operator, was killed in the March 22, 2013, incident at the Emery County mine and his cousin, Dallen McFarlane, was injured.

"If I let myself get angry, I am furious," said Julie Jones, Elam's mother, reacting to the report, "but it still does not bring my son back. I am furious they knew it was not safe."

The labor department's Mine Safety and Health Administration issued two citations as a result of the fatal accident, pointing to an inadequate roof control plan for the conditions encountered and siting mobile roof support, or MRS, machines too far from other equipment in the entry where the accident happened.

"For multiple shifts, the operator was aware the 20-foot cut width and ensuing rib sloughage exposed miners to excessive widths on (the section)," the report said.

Specifically, the report notes that the day shift crew did not mine in that area on the day of the fatal accident. When the afternoon crew of Jones and McFarlane returned to the section, there was a discussion about roof conditions and the sagging mesh sections.

McFarlane told investigators he was positioning a trailing cable and water hose alongside Jones' machine when the roof collapsed.

"McFarlane stated he heard the roof pop and roof bolts break, and he was hit from behind by the falling roof material," the report said. "McFarlane was pushed forward against the continuous mining machine, where he was entrapped in a triangular pocket between the floor, the side of the mining machine and the angled rock slab. Jones was also entrapped by falling roof material at that time."

The report noted that leading up to the accident, the retreat mining sequence was becoming increasingly difficult, with the operator noting that over the preceding 10 days, pillar recovery of the coal became "progressively worse."

In the previous row of pillars, extraction was not taking place because of the adverse roof conditions and other "cuts" not taken allowed large remnants of coal to be left in place, the report said.

"It should have been apparent to the mine operator that the site-specific roof control plan for retreat mining in the (designated) pillar panel was not adequate for the hazardous conditions that were being encountered," the report said. "The operator was aware of worsening conditions, but elected to continue mining."

Julie Jones said it saddens her that obvious warnings were ignored at the mine.

"They knew it was not safe to pull on the pillars," she said. "They should have taken responsibility before this happened, or I would still have my son. I can't change that, no matter what."

Jones said in the nearly nine months that have passed, life for the family he left behind has not become any easier.

"It is still really hard. I have two grandsons without a dad, and I had my son for 29 ½ years, and nobody can give me my son back."

She said she'd like to think that the changes MSHA has assured have been taken at the mine will make it safe for those men who continue to work there.

"If it helps prevent some other family from going through what we went through, that it is a good thing. But if they don't change it, that is what is hard," Jones said.

MSHA officials said the mine operator has 30 days to either accept or contest the citations. Financial penalties have not yet been assessed.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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