The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has yet to complete its investigation into the deadly Crandall Canyon Mine collapse last summer. And while it may be prudent to wait for that report before demanding further action, we are disturbed by information revealed last week in an investigation by the House Education and Labor Committee.
The report found that Murray Energy and its subsidiaries knew a "bump" had occurred in the mine in March of 2007, but that they reported it to the Bureau of Land Management rather than to MSHA. The difference is significant. MSHA is the agency charged with ensuring the safety of mine workers. It has every incentive to take such a report seriously in light of that charge. The BLM, on the other hand, collects lease payments from mineral extractions on federal land. Some have suggested its incentive is to allow mining to continue, although BLM officials have historically shown more sensitivity than that to issues of public concern.
Regardless, the fact is that a bump, which describes a potentially deadly shift within the mine caused by pressure, occurred again on Aug. 6, 2007, trapping and killing six miners. Three rescuers later died in a failed attempt to reach them.
Attorneys for the mining interests have reacted to this information with strong words, such as "reckless allegations" and "political grandstanding." But the fact remains that nine lives were lost. They cannot be brought back. However, any serious allegations raised by credible inquiries, such as the House investigation or what may yet be revealed in the MSHA probe, must be thoroughly examined. That much is owed to the memory of the men who died, as well as to their survivors and, more importantly at this point, to the many miners who continue to work in a coal industry that labors to meet the nation's growing energy needs.
From the start, Crandall Canyon officials, led by mine co-owner Bob Murray, insisted the accident was caused by an earthquake. No evidence, either then or in the months since, has been found to corroborate that version. This new evidence, however, raises serious questions about whether mine company officials knew better.
The chairman of the House committee, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., wants the Justice Department to investigate. Indeed, the accumulating evidence seems to back a case for possible criminal charges. Unless MSHA's report reaches a dramatically different conclusion, such a probe should proceed.