What does it say about our state when we have tougher laws to control liquor outlets than to protect mine workers?

The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has the police powers to protect the public health and safety and to grant, deny, suspend, revoke, license and approve outlet sources, and with a multimillion-dollar budget — but the state does nothing to protect mine workers. The state has left mine safety to the feds.

It took the loss of nine miners' lives at the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster to see the failure of the feds in protecting Utah miners. The tragedy triggered an outpouring of sympathy, support and a call to do everything possible to prevent future accidents. In response, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. created the Utah Mine Commission to review what the state should be doing to assure the safety of Utah miners and recommend what the state's role should be to prevent future accidents.

The disaster revealed the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration's shortcomings regarding its oversight responsibilities. Richard Stickler and Kevin Strickland, MSHA officials, admitted there was room for improvement. Federal inspectors are at a mine site just 5 percent of the time. They need help. Two sets of eyes, Stickler said, are better than one.

The disaster showed various state and federal agencies all had something to do with mine operations — Bureau of Land Management, MSHA, Utah Department of Natural Resources and Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining — but none had the overall responsibility for assuring the safety and health of miners in coal mines. A Utah legislative audit made a similar finding, and a public land management administrator agreed that another set of eyes could have looked at the mine plan and asked the hard questions.

The commission was to conduct its own objective study, but the key issue of whether the state should play a role in assuring safety of miners seemed compromised from the start: One commission member, a state senator from that area, said he did not believe the state needed to add to existing federal regulations. Mine owners strongly opposed the state playing any role in assuring mine safety and quickly changed the focus of the hearings from preventing accidents through compliance to self-serving recommendations, such as the state educating and training workers on safety and rescue operations, improving communication between agencies and expanding mine safety programs at the Western Energy Technology Center in Helper. Their recommendations were tantamount to closing the barn door after the horses got out, and local legislators seemed to side with the owners.

For the state not to assume responsibility for the safety of mine workers with at least the same powers as our liquor enforcement laws — to grant, deny, suspend, revoke, license and approve outlet sources — tells the miners and their families Utahns care more about liquor and mine owners than mine workers. Our coal mining communities, for too long, have been held hostage with the belief that their existence is dependent upon the company store, but the commission's decisions should not perpetuate that belief. It has a mandate to recommend how best the state can assure the safety of its workers and will be telling the nation how Utahns value their workers and families.

The state has the responsibility to assure the safety of its mine workers and should not let their lives be left to faceless bureaucracies. We have seen the results. If the state doesn't take responsibility for the safety of mine workers, it ought to stop saying we care about workers and their families.

Utah native John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations, has served as a juvenile probation officer, served on several national corrections boards and was appointed to the President's Commission on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. E-mail: [email protected]