The Utah Mine Safety Commission made a strong plea to the governor Wednesday for the state to institute a system where whistle-blowers could alert a state coal mine safety ombudsman about potential problems in mines.
The panel also wants Utah to initiate a state-federal partnership with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration for at least the next year in an effort to allow state officials to participate in inspection and mine-approval processes.
Commission chairman Scott Matheson said the state had an immediate need for an ombudsman system.
"This system would allow any person, especially miners, an opportunity to report any safety concerns through all available communication channels," he said. "To encourage candor, there would be strict legal protections that guarantee the privacy and confidentiality of the person making the report."
The commission presented its recommendations to Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. at the state Capitol. The list of 45 recommendations was the culmination of five months of hearings, testimony and research by the eight-member panel that was created after the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster.
In August, six miners at Crandall Canyon were trapped deep underground after a collapse at the mine in Emery County. Days later, three rescuers were killed trying to reach those trapped inside. The mine has since been sealed, and the remains of the six miners were never recovered.
Huntsman said he will work to determine which recommendations can be implemented right away via executive order and which ones will require legislative action.
"I am particularly intrigued by the idea of a Utah-MSHA partnership," he said. "This kind of collaborative work will certainly put us ahead in the game."
Matheson said a state partnership with MSHA would help Utah officials understand ways the state can supplement and improve safety without duplicating MSHA efforts. "The responsible and sound thing to do at this point is to put the state in a much more engaged and collaborative relationship with MSHA," he said.
The panel's recommendations provide the means for the state to develop a blueprint to address emergency response and family support in the event of a major mine accident through planning, preparation and communication, Matheson said.
The panel advocated the creation of a state office of coal mine safety, Matheson said, "because we need leadership, efficiency and accountability in implementing coal safety measures." The proposed office would serve as a state coordination point for coal-mine safety and be placed in the Utah Labor Commission.
Matheson also noted the panel's recommendation to develop safety training programs and mine-rescue support through the Western Energy Training Center in Helper.
State Sen. Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, and Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, have both served on the commission and will represent the panel in its efforts to seek necessary funding for the recommendations in the report that will require state appropriations.
"Well-trained miners are the safest miners in the world, and this will coordinate it all," Dmitrich said.
Huntsman said the recommendations will serve as the foundation for the state reaching a higher level of mine safety.
"Clearly, we have been pointed out as a state that has been deficient in this regard," Huntsman said. The recommendations will help make Utah "a state that moving forward embraces best practices."
The mine-safety commission will now be disbanded, since it has made its recommendations. Huntsman said the panel's technical advisory committee will continue to offer ideas and strategies on improving mine safety, with assistance from qualified members in the executive branch of state government.
"That will now be our working group going forward," Huntsman said.The commission may reconvene after MSHA completes its investigation of the Crandall Canyon Mine accident so that the state panel can analyze the results of MSHA's inquiry.