The truth is, we'll never know if a Bureau of Land Management inspector's concerns about practices at the Crandall Canyon Mine would have made any difference had he communicated them to federal Mine Safety and Health Administration officials prior to a deadly collapse at the mine this summer.
In addressing the Utah Mine Safety Commission earlier this week, the inspector reported being in the mine three times in 2007, at least once noting concerns about mining practices and the depths at which the mining was conducted. However, the BLM inspector in the mine apparently did not believe there was imminent danger of any catastrophic event.
Six miners died in a collapse at the mine on Aug. 6. Three rescuers perished in a separate mine collapse a few days later. The six miners' bodies have not been recovered.
Even if BLM officials did not believe there was imminent danger of a catastrophe, wouldn't it have been prudent, in any event, to pass along concerns to federal mine safety officials? Surely the men and women who undertake this dangerous job deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their safety.
The BLM did not report its concerns to the mine owner, either, which is equally troubling. At the end of the day, it is the mine operator's responsibility to ensure miners work in safe conditions, have the required training and gear and use mining techniques and equipment that maximize safety.
Scott Matheson Jr., chairman of the state commission, noted in the panel's Tuesday meeting that the agencies are attempting to fix their respective communication problems. This needs to be a priority for both.
It is difficult to understand, in an age of instantaneous communication, why no one sent an e-mail, made a telephone call or wrote a quick letter to MSHA or the mine owner regarding these issues. It may have made no difference in the end. Or it may have prompted MSHA or the owner to review mine conditions. Isn't it common sense to err on the side of safety?
Some involved in this debate say the state needs a larger role in mining oversight to improve safety on behalf of working men and women. Utah should enter this arena only if it is prepared to devote significant resources to this pursuit. While a mining regulatory agency for Utah wouldn't need to be on the scale of Pennsylvania's, which has about 80 inspectors, it would require significant funding to create a workable new bureaucracy. Is the Utah Legislature willing to do this? Would it have the desired outcomes?
A better approach would be to lobby Congress to ensure MSHA has appropriate funding to do its important work. That funding should come with strings intense federal oversight to ensure the agency is doing all it can to promote the safety of coal miners.