As its name suggests, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is supposed to ensure safe working conditions for miners. This is supposed to be achieved by establishing regulations, inspecting mines and mining plans, and making sure regulations are followed and deficiencies are corrected.
Ultimately, mine owners are responsible for the day-to-day safety of their employees. But they operate under conditions that must be approved by mining regulators. If regulators fail, people can die.
As Utahns know all too well, nine men including an MSHA rescuer died in the Crandall Canyon Mine last summer. Six remain entombed in the mine near Huntington, which collapsed while miners conducted retreat mining. Retreat mining involves removing supporting pillars of coal inside mines to allow the roof to collapse as miners and equipment work their way out. It enables mines to maximize coal extraction, but the process can pose greater risks than traditional mining techniques.
A U.S. Department of Labor probe into MSHA's operations at Crandall Canyon Mine suggests myriad failures occurred within the agency. The department audit found that MSHA skipped many agency requirements in approving a roof control plan at the mine.
Perhaps most disturbing was the revelation that a Bureau of Land Management inspector consistently raised concerns about cave-in dangers. The inspector's findings were not considered by MSHA, even though the BLM inspects mines on its property at least four times a year. This sounds very much like an agency asleep at the switch. Nine good men paid the price for that "negligence," to use the U.S. Department of Labor's word.
Under the best of circumstances, it is challenging for local inspectors to have sufficient professional distance to perform their jobs as needed. After all, their children may go to school with the children of mine operators. They see one another in the grocery store or at church. They fully understand the economic impacts of the area's industries, whether it's coal mining, ranching or recreational activities on public lands. Holding people to account to federal regulations in person is certainly more difficult than pushing paper in a far-away office in Denver or even Washington, D.C.
In MSHA's case, lives depend upon holding mine operators to account for violations of federal mining regulations. Those field inspectors rely on the technical expertise of their regional and national counterparts. When any of those processes fail, people's lives hang in the balance. Coal miners, whose labors literally fuel the nation's growing appetite for electrical power, rely on MSHA officials dotting their i's and crossing their t's. Their families rely on the agency to establish conditions and regulations that help ensure husbands, fathers, sons and brothers come home safely at the end of the workday.
In this case, the Labor Department's probe into the incident suggests, on many levels, that the trust those miners placed in federal regulators was misplaced. For a community still grieving the loss of nine good men, it's salt in the wound.