If Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. decides later this year that Utah should begin its own mine safety and regulation process, the state cannot afford to go about it halfheartedly. That will mean money, and likely lots of it.
The state would have to hire and train enough inspectors to carry out a regular schedule of unannounced visits, and it would need to make reports public in a timely manner.
That said, there may be some value to having state inspections, even if they duplicate what federal inspectors already are doing. The feds are understaffed.
Richard Stickler, the assistant labor secretary in charge of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, was in town last week, meeting with various media outlets, including the Deseret Morning News editorial board. He spoke highly of the state mine inspection programs that exist elsewhere, including in Pennsylvania, where he once was the director. In those places, state inspectors can provide another important set of eyes and ears attuned to mine safety. They can compliment the work of federal inspectors, rather than work at cross-purposes with them.
Pennsylvania has approximately 80 inspectors. Utah would not likely need as many, but the mine inspection process would require an entirely new layer of bureaucracy, with all the associated costs. Those costs are not yet known, but they would require a yearly commitment from taxpayers.
Whether the payoff would be worthwhile in a state as small as Utah is questionable. Whether a state agency could have prevented the Crandall Canyon collapse is doubtful.
Stickler had to navigate tough waters during the Crandall tragedy. His reserved and professional demeanor was no match for the flamboyant and emotional mine owner Robert Murray, who often stole the spotlight. But his willingness to meet with media and candidly answer questions demonstrates his desire to find answers.
Most likely, Stickler said, the Crandall investigation will focus on the strength of the pillars holding up underground ceilings. During the past 25 years, 300 miners have suffered serious injuries and 19 have died due to mountain "bumps," the term for underground movements that cause collapses. Most of those bumps happen in Utah, where mountains are tall. They are impossible to predict.
Many questions right now revolve around the investigation and Utah's difficulty getting access to information. The media, including this newspaper, also have filed a lawsuit to gain access. That is a separate issue.
Stickler's agency seems to continually suffer from a lack of resources, which becomes apparent only after tragic accidents. Currently, Stickler said, 273 new inspectors are being trained, but that means 49 percent of MSHA's inspection force is not yet certified.
As with any other inspection process, mine safety takes money and strong oversight. Finding the commitment to provide this in Utah likely would prove difficult.