After considerable debate, Utah Mine Safety Commission members on Friday agreed to recommend the creation of a state Office of Coal Mine Safety.
The eight-member panel had reached consensus on most of the 47 interim recommendations members had drawn up for their meeting at the state Capitol, but the members split on the necessity of developing a state office to monitor Utah's coal mining industry when the federal government already has a monitoring agency, the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
"I really don't see the need in the state of Utah," said panel member and state Senate Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich, D-Price. "If we could work out a way with Congress where they would fund a state program like they're funding theirs, I think it would be a valuable resource to the state of Utah. But to have both is a waste of time."
Critics of the proposal said a state office would duplicate duties already being performed by MSHA and potentially be expensive for the state.
But panel chairman Scott Matheson said he supports the creation of a state office because it would be an independent state entity monitoring MSHA. He also said the state office that he envisions would supplement the efforts of MSHA, not duplicate them.
Dmitrich was the only commission member who was involved in mining the last time Utah had its own coal mining agency, more than 30 years ago. He said it was unsuccessful then, and he has little faith it would be any better today.
"I'm sure that when we fully implement the Mine Safety Act of 2006, which hasn't been done yet, we'll have a few years to look at whether we even need a state safety program," Dmitrich said, referring to a federal law passed by Congress to improve mine safety.
He added, however, that he would fully support a state safety program without MSHA involvement.
The Utah commission was created following the disaster at the Crandall Canyon mine last August. Six miners were trapped when an area of the mine collapsed, and their bodies were never recovered. Three rescuers died days later trying to reach the trapped miners.
The commission members agreed to recommend the creation of a state mine-safety office after Matheson explained that the office would not be a large bureaucratic agency but an office that would have resources to monitor coal-mine safety and that would be housed within an existing state department.
"An agency suggests something that is independent from other departments in state government, which isn't what was intended," Matheson said. "This entity would operate within a department in state government. We would then have a point person/office to address coal-mine safety in the state of Utah."
His revised explanation seemed to relieve the anxiety of some commission members who had previously expressed concerns about the proposal. It paved the way for the panel to sweep through the remaining unresolved items, all of which had been stalled due to the dispute over creating the office.
The panel reached agreement on 45 of the items on their draft recommendation list, including establishing an enhanced safety partnership with the Mine Health and Safety Administration to ensure the safety of Utah mines, and working with MSHA and coal operators on developing a clear set of protocols for timely and accurate communications with the families of mine victims, the press and the public following a coal mine accident.
After the daylong meeting, Matheson expressed relief that the commission was able to work through its differences and now has numerous solid suggestions to present to Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr."We've made a lot of progress and we've worked hard," he said. "We've crafted 45 proposals covering a variety of areas. They've been well thought through, and now it's up to the policymakers to decide if they want to implement them."