The head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration said Thursday that his agency has declined to provide Utah's Mine Safety Commission with access to all information in an MSHA investigation into the Crandall Canyon Mine accident because the commission declined to sign a confidentiality agreement.
"If (the commission members) sign a confidentiality agreement, I would trust that, and from what I understand, that has been put on the table and was offered," MSHA head Richard Stickler said in an interview with the Deseret Morning News. "But the folks on the commission would not sign the confidentiality agreement, is what I've been told."
Those comments were disconcerting to the chairman of the state panel, Scott Matheson Jr. He said MSHA has not made any specific offer of access in exchange for a signed confidentiality agreement.
"There's been no resolution, and there has been no refusal to do anything," Matheson said.
He added he has spoken directly to the attorneys for MSHA at the Labor Department but hadn't spoken to Stickler. Matheson said talks between the Utah commission and MSHA lawyers continue, and he hopes to come to some accord that will allow his panel the access.
"We've talked about briefings in a public meeting, and we've talked about doing briefings privately, subject to non-disclosure. But we have not reached any resolution of those discussions, and we have not taken anything off the table," Matheson said.
The Labor Department last month refused to let the commission have any information from the Crandall Canyon Mine accident investigation until the MSHA inquiry is finished, citing "grave concerns" that the panel's involvement would jeopardize the department's work. Matheson had asked MSHA for full cooperation and access to information as the federal government conducts its investigation into the accident.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who created the state commission after the accident, also has urged MSHA to be forthcoming in sharing information with the commission members.
Nine men lost their lives in the Aug. 6 collapse and subsequent rescue effort. The mine is closed.
Access to the probe findings and confidentiality also were the subjects of a lawsuit filed recently by the Deseret Morning News, Salt Lake Tribune, Associated Press, CNN and the Utah Media Coalition. The media outlets argued that reporters and the public have a right to know what is happening in proceedings undertaken by MSHA investigators. The media filed suit in federal court last week in an attempt to open the closed hearings.
But federal Judge Dee Benson ruled Tuesday in Salt Lake City that the meetings will remained closed, saying he could find no constitutional justification for opening the hearings to the media and the public.
Michael O'Brien, the attorney for the media groups, said Thursday that no decision has been made on whether to appeal the ruling to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, but a decision could come by early next week.
While the battle for access continues, Stickler said, MSHA has ramped up its efforts to make mining safer in the wake of accidents such as the 2006 Sago Mine accident that killed 12 miners in West Virginia.
Congress last year appropriated an additional $25 million for MSHA's budget, he said. Since July 2006, his agency has used part of those funds to hire 273 new coal-mine inspectors, although nearly half of MSHA's inspection staff hasn't completed their certification training.
When asked if compliance with safety requirements could have prevented the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster, Stickler said he didn't think so.
"They had received their regular inspection. There had been a roof-control specialist underground in May," he said.
He said that predicting a roof collapse is often not an exact science, and it would be difficult to always know what could trigger a collapse. Stickler said engineers had submitted reports stating they believed the safety supports inside the mine would provide adequate protection against serious mountain bumps.
"But obviously there is a problem in the system, and that's our job in this investigation to find out," Stickler said.
How mine owner Bob Murray will figure in the MSHA probe is unknown. But Stickler said he hoped Murray would allow his company's public-relations staffers to do their jobs during public appearances, rather than handling them personally, as he did in the initial days following the Crandall Canyon disaster.
Stickler also said he recommended to Murray that he allow MSHA to talk to the families and the media, but his suggestions fell on deaf ears.
"When somebody would put him on the defensive, he would go on the offense, and he would raise his voice at the person who would raise the question," Stickler said. "I said, 'Bob, that's unacceptable, you can't be responding to families that way."'
Following the first few family briefings, Stickler said he decided to distance himself from Murray, asking the local sheriff to prohibit Murray from attending any more family briefings. The local sheriff complied, Stickler said. Since then, Murray has been conspicuously absent.As for the investigation's future, Stickler said he is confident the MSHA investigation will eventually answer many questions surrounding the Crandall Canyon disaster.