Thirty-three U.S. coal miners perished in work-related accidents in 2007, including six miners trapped inside Crandall Canyon Mine on Aug. 6. Ten days later, three rescuers died and six others were injured in a second collapse during a rescue attempt.
The incidents remain under investigation by state and federal officials. The deaths of miners Kerry Allred, Luis Hernandez, Carlos Payan, Don Erickson, Manuel Sanchez, Brandon Phillips and rescuers Dale Black, Brandon Kimber and Gary Jensen weigh heavy on the minds of Utah.
Last year was the second-deadliest year for coal miners since 2002, although an improvement over 2006 when 47 coal miners died on the job. An explosion that killed 12 men at the Sago Mine in West Virginia in 2006 prompted Congress to pass more stringent safety standards. However, many of those measures have yet to be implemented. Congress should demand to know why.
Industry representatives say many of the new standards are expensive or the technology is unproven, so mine owners are implementing them incrementally. Richard Stickler, director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, told the Associated Press that progress is being made, although his agency has too few trained mine inspectors to ensure the newest mandates have been implemented and existing laws followed.
Congress needs to do more to ensure the safety of men and women who work in the nation's coal mines. MSHA cannot conduct thorough mine inspections and follow-up visits without adequate staffing. The agency needs proper documentation to successfully levy penalties against mines or exert other means to enforce mining regulations. MSHA needs a reasonable level of funding to do its work.
In many respects, safety in America's mining industry is a huge success story. Mining deaths have dropped substantially in recent decades due to federal regulation and mine owners who have made safety a top priority. Still, there is room for improvement.
Stickler, in a visit with the Deseret Morning News editorial board last fall, said the mine disasters he's studied or investigated had common characteristics either the laws were inadequate or they weren't followed. It remains to be seen if MSHA will write regulation regarding retreat mining, which was under way in the Crandall Canyon Mine when the initial "bump" and mine collapse occurred.
The mining industry and regulators must do all in their power to ensure coal miners work under the safest conditions possible. That means that the laws contemplate as many safety issues as possible, that government mandates proven technology and industry does not use cost and "emerging technology" as excuses to drag its feet.