As the Utah Mine Safety Commission considers all its options before making recommendations to the governor prior to the start of the Legislature, some high-powered mining executives have voiced strong opposition to the creation of a state mine-safety agency.
Three presidents of Utah coal mine operators testified before the commission during a meeting Thursday at the state Capitol. Among their chief comments to the panel was their opposition to the state developing a mine-safety agency that they believe would duplicate much of the work already being done by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
"The state should enhance training for miners; they should enhance the technology at the universities to address the specific geologic problems unique to Utah," said J. Brett Harvey, president and chief executive of Consol Energy Inc., which owns the Emery Mine near Provo. "But to just add inspection doesn't make any sense."
He said the state would be better off developing programs that provide training and education to miners so that they can examine on-the-job safety issues first-hand.
"Empower them to change the safety of the mines as they do their jobs, rather than have some agency who shows up once a week," he said.
Harvey said he respects the work that the MSHA inspectors do.
"The MSHA inspectors are Utah miners; they're the best in the business," he said. "I'm not negative about what they do. I'd rather have those guys in my mine with the federal organization and the technical backup rather than a state organization that's not funded as well."
Harvey testified along with Neil Getzelman, president of Interwest Mining Co., which operates the Deer Creek Mine near Huntington, and Gene DiClaudio, president of Canyon Fuel Co., which operates three underground coal mines in Utah.
Both Getzelman and DiClaudio echoed the sentiments voiced by Harvey.
"It is unnecessary and premature to re-establish the Utah state mine-safety program," Getzelman said.
Of the 17 states with underground mining operations, Utah is among seven with no state safety inspection programs for coal mines. For the past 30 years, Utah has instead turned over safety regulations and enforcement to MSHA.
"A Utah mine-safety enforcement program would only duplicate the existing federal regulatory process," DiClaudio said. He added that some Eastern states such as West Virginia and Kentucky have their own state agencies but still have a higher rate of mine injuries than Utah.
David Litvin, head of the Utah Mining Association and a member of the state commission, agreed with the executives' stance, noting safety has increased significantly over the years as technology and miner training have improved.
But Dennis O'Dell, safety and health director of the United Mine Workers of America, expressed reservations. He said that while most mine operators do their best to enhance safety, history has shown that profit can push some to forgo safety measures in an effort to bolster their bottom lines.
O'Dell advocated for the creation of a state mine-safety agency to help police the state mining industry and make it safer for the men and women who work in the mines.
Mike Dalpiaz, international vice president with the United Mine Workers of America, agreed.
"The state of Utah needs to get an agency with some teeth," he told the commission. "We have building inspectors, we have fish and game and wildlife, we have a ton of police officers and highway patrolmen. But we have no one watching coal mines."
Dalpiaz suggested that Utah could look to Alabama as an example of a successful state mine-safety agency.
Commission chairman Scott Matheson Jr. said the panel has a full plate of suggestions to consider.
"We have identified some things we need to get in front of the Legislature now that are important," Matheson said.
He said the commission has a strong consensus on the value of providing miners with education, training, testing and certification.Matheson said the commission will spend the next 2 1/2 weeks reviewing 47 items on the panel's draft interim recommendation report. He said he hoped to present the final version to the governor by the start of the legislative session later this month.