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Mine questions recalled

Report on Crandall disaster will be released Thursday

Published: Saturday, July 4 2015 5:53 a.m. MDT

Richard Stickler, the acting assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, speaks during a mine-safety symposium at the Sheraton Hotel in Salt Lake City on Monday. (Geoffrey McAllister, Deseret News) Richard Stickler, the acting assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, speaks during a mine-safety symposium at the Sheraton Hotel in Salt Lake City on Monday. (Geoffrey McAllister, Deseret News)
Nearly one year ago, the collapse at the Crandall Canyon Mine near Huntington left people demanding to know what caused it and who, if anyone, might be to blame.
A Mine Safety and Health Administration report was expected to shed light on those questions Monday during a mine-safety symposium in Salt Lake City, but the release of that report has been delayed until Thursday. Richard Stickler, acting assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said the agency needed extra time to have the document translated from English into Spanish for the benefit of some of the Crandall Canyon miners' families.
Stickler said Monday during an interview that MSHA certainly had a responsibility for approving the Crandall Canyon Mine plan and inspecting operations there, but that MSHA officials could only physically be there about 5 percent of the time while it was being mined.
"There's no way we can cover everything," Stickler said. But, he added, there were "obviously" some things missed that should have been caught: "We could not have been there to catch everything."
David Chirdon of MSHA gives mine symposium attendees an update on post-accident communication and tracking systems technology for use in mine cave-ins Monday in Salt Lake. (Geoffrey McAllister, Deseret News) David Chirdon of MSHA gives mine symposium attendees an update on post-accident communication and tracking systems technology for use in mine cave-ins Monday in Salt Lake. (Geoffrey McAllister, Deseret News)
Six miners died in the original collapse last August, and their bodies were never recovered. Three rescuers died in a second collapse while trying to reach them.
Stickler said Monday that MSHA has made a commitment to not talk about results of the investigation into the Crandall Canyon collapse until victims' families have been talked to first.
Some people say mine co-owner Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, is to blame for the collapse. Others include MSHA in their accusations. Murray is named in a lawsuit filed last April by the victims' families.
"MSHA's finger is in this pie, too," said Mike Dalpiaz, international vice president for the United Mine Workers of America.
The Labor Department this past spring issued a report that said MSHA was negligent leading up to the Crandall Canyon collapse. University of Utah seismologists last month said the mine collapse set off a seismic event that registered as a 3.9 magnitude shock during a 50-acre cave-in. Initially, Murray had insisted an earthquake caused the collapse.
Dalpiaz, who is based in Price, noted that MSHA had agreed to the retreat mining that was happening inside the mine at the time of the collapse. Workers in the Crandall Canyon Mine were pulling "barrier pillars," which are much larger coal-based structures intended to provide added strength to a mine ceiling that is underneath a mountain. Pulling the barriers, Dalpiaz added, is "totally taboo," although it's not against regulations.
"Everybody else leaves them in there — you just don't mess with them," Dalpiaz said.
Some mines are allowed to pull pillars, he added, if it's in a plan that is agreed upon by regulators and the mine owner. Stickler said Monday that MSHA realized it needed to revisit some of its regulations after the Crandall Canyon accident.
"When we saw what happened at Crandall Canyon, certainly it became obvious to us that we need to take a second look at the roof-control plans that had been approved for deep cover mines," he said.
Miner Don Erickson, of Helper, died in the Crandall Canyon Mine collapse. His son Brandon Erickson was invited to the symposium in Salt Lake City this week.
Erickson said he planned on staying at the symposium for two full days of reports about safety improvements to the industry.
"I'm just here to support the safety aspect of it," Erickson said. Based on what he learned Monday, he added, "It seems it will be better in the future."
The agenda for the symposium was safety issues in underground coal mining. The keynote speaker, Brett Harvey, who is president and chief executive officer of Consol Energy, said mining companies must put top priority on safety. Consol owns 17 coal mines nationwide, including the Emery Deep Mine in Emery County.
"Regulation is the framework of which we determine and evaluate safety," Harvey said. "The value of zero injuries and the value of safety is beyond regulation, and that's a matter of training at the universities, training of the miners and training before they go into the mines."
Wendy Black, wife of Dale Black, one of three men who died trying to rescue the trapped miners, still has several relatives in mining. She was interested in the discussion about safety improvements.
"If we can help save one coal miner with all this help, it'll be worth it," Black said.
A moment of silence was held for Erickson's father and the others who died at Crandall Canyon.
"It was honorable," Erickson said about the recognition of his father. "I just wish that he was still here."
Sen. Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, who made a 30-year career in the mining industry, said there is "huge" pressure coming from mine-safety issues these days. He believes there should have been more oversight in the plan approval process for Crandall Canyon.
Huntington Mayor Hilary Gordon was impressed by communication and miner location-detector devices that were talked about Monday.
"I always felt maybe the technology was right there," Gordon said about what sort of technology could have been used by Crandall Canyon miners prior to the collapse. "If only they could have pinpointed where those men were."
Although Dalpiaz called Utah's new mine-safety director a "cop without a gun," Gordon and Dmitrich said they are grateful for Garth J. Nielsen's new role. Nielsen was appointed by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. earlier this month.
Though there will be oversight from Nielsen, he has no regulatory control over mines in his position as director of the new Office of Coal Mine Safety.
Dalpiaz was much more blunt about safety concerns at Crandall Canyon: "If that mine would have been unionized, that particular mining practice never would have happened," he said.
The problem these days, Dalpiaz said, is that with a bad economy and an "intimidating" atmosphere that silences some miners, no one will speak up for fear of losing their job. "These guys are just so intimidated," he said.
Davitt McAteer, vice president for sponsored programs at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia and the former assistant secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration, said in an interview at the conference that as part of efforts to improve mine safety, the government should work with industry to reduce the obstacles that impede the expedient use of new, potentially life-saving technologies at mine sites.
"The regulatory system is so complicated that even if we have the solution, we can't get it into place," he said.


E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com; jlee@desnews.com

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