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August Miller, Deseret Morning News
The Tower Mine which was closed by Murray Energy Corp. laying off about 300 workers in Wellington, Utah.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is testing new operating procedures at Murray Energy's Tower Mine near Price to enhance miner safety.

The company said Wednesday the 170 miners laid off when the mine's operations were suspended in August should be back to work in early January.

Major changes underground include the addition of video monitoring cameras, pressure monitors, additions to shields that would separate miners from bursting or falling debris and increased distances between miners and longwall mining machines.

Murray closed Tower Mine in August to complete safety-related work after the fatal collapses at its nearby Crandall Canyon Mine earlier that month. MSHA has been involved with the company since then, working on operational changes designed to make conditions safer in mines prone to "bounces," or seismic events in which pressure causes sections of coal inside a mine to burst or collapse.

Such a bounce at Murray Energy's Crandall Canyon Mine near Huntington fatally trapped six miners, and a second bounce killed three rescuers.

"After Crandall Canyon, we just felt we needed to take a look, based on the devastation we saw there, which was unexpected to any of us," Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's administrator for Coal Mine Safety and Health program, told the Deseret Morning News on Tuesday.

The retreat-mining technique at Crandall Canyon in Huntington Canyon, which remains closed, differs from the longwall operation at the Tower Mine north of Price. The similarity that has MSHA's attention is that both mines are extremely deep.

Deep coal mines are not unique, but mountain conditions in Utah and Colorado are more prone to bounces than Eastern mines.

"Those don't seem to be as bump prone," Stricklin said. "There are mines in Alabama under 2,500 feet of cover, but the overburden above them isn't mountainous — it's basically flat."

Mountaintops in western mines, on the other hand, may rise 1,000 to 3,000 feet above the operations underground. The geological difference "is what may play a role in this," Stricklin said.

There are at least 80 mines at depths similar to Crandall Canyon and Tower, Stricklin said. MSHA investigators visited 15 deep, Western mines while researching the new operation plan for the Tower Mine.

At Tower, mine operators have removed 19 shields from each side of the longwall working face and are adding protective sprags or plates to the shields "that will protect the workers if a bump were to occur in that area. Hopefully this sprag will catch (debris) before it would reach workers," Stricklin said.

New monitors will look for shifts in pressure on the shields, and newly-placed cameras will allow a worker to monitor conditions in the work area.

A control panel and operator are also being moved from the working area to a distance of 240 feet toward the mine entrance.

Stricklin said the previous MSHA-approved roof-control plan at Tower was not out of step with other mines and that any new operating requirements for other mines would follow an evaluation period at Tower. "The new plan is ahead of the curve," Stricklin said.

Murray Energy vice president Rob Murray said the company, overall, is very satisfied with the new roof control plan and agrees with Stricklin's characterization that its safety elements "are indeed ahead of the curve."

"We hope to have the longwall automation completed and the Tower Mine operational in early January 2008, at which time we will call back our laid-off employees," Murray said.

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