In our opinion: Rhino mine report shows safety still takes second place in the industry

Published: Saturday, Dec. 21 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Elam Jones, 29, was killed Friday, March 22, 2013 when a 10-by-10-foot, 22-inch-thick slab of rock fell on him at the Rhino Mine in Bear Canyon.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

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Federal regulators say managers at the Rhino Mine in Emery County were aware of unsafe conditions before a miner died when a seven-ton section of roof collapsed last March. It is sad but not surprising news given the history of companies pushing the safety envelope in order to continue production.

An investigation by the Mine Safety and Health Administration resulted in citations claiming operators of the mine knew of worsening conditions in an area where workers were exposed to large sections of roof that were not properly secured. Elam Jones, a 29-year-old miner, was killed when an 8-foot wide, 16-foot section of the roof collapsed.

Jones’ family is understandably upset at the findings. “I am furious they knew it was not safe,” his mother told The Deseret News. Beyond a family’s anger, there should be considerable public concern over what MSHA uncovered.

Several safety incidents over a period of years have demonstrated the process of “retreat mining” is inherently risky, but this recent matter suggests some mine operators have failed to take those lessons to heart. The case of Elam Jones may be seen as evidence of that failure.

He was working at the Crandall Canyon Mine in 2007 when a huge section of that mine collapsed, killing nine of his colleagues. That he would succumb to a similar fate years later at another facility using the same retreat mining technique is testimony of a continuing culture of risk-taking.

A critical question now is whether fines and other penalties for safety violations are sufficient to provide effective deterrents. Critics of the coal industry have argued that companies are prone to regard such penalties as a cost of doing business. According to a Deseret News analysis shortly after the Crandall Canyon disaster, mine inspectors issued more than 5,000 separate citations for safety violations at Utah mines between 2004 and 2007. Nearly 2,000 of them involved “significant and substantial” threats to health and life.

The Crandall Canyon incident resulted in the mine owners paying a fine of a little more than $1 million after inspectors found they were aware of potential trouble. Separately, three engineers who admitted fault in the collapse were fined a total of $100,000.

It might be hard to assess whether fines of that size constitute a significant penalty for any given company. Based on what happened at Rhino, it’s not hard to assess whether they have offered a fully effective deterrent to those who would continue to look away from evidence of danger.

Accidents happen, but a fatality that occurs after warning signs were apparent is not an accident. Regulators have yet to determine what fines may be assessed against the owners of the Rhino Mine. Given what inspectors have alleged, they should be as “significant and substantial” as the risks the miners faced with the full knowledge of their bosses.

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