Nearly one year ago, the collapse at the Crandall Canyon Mine near Huntington left people demanding to know what caused it and who, if anyone, might be to blame.
A Mine Safety and Health Administration report was expected to shed light on those questions Monday during a mine safety symposium in Salt Lake City, but the results will have to wait until Thursday.
Richard Stickler said Monday during an interview that MSHA certainly had a responsibility for approving the Crandall Canyon Mine plan and inspecting operations there, but that MSHA officials could only physically be there about 5 percent of the time while it was being mined.
"There's no way we can cover everything," said Stickler, acting assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. He said there were "obviously" some things missed that should have been caught. "We could not have been there to catch everything."
Six miners died in the original collapse last August they are still inside the closed mine and three more perished in another collapse trying to rescue the trapped workers.
Stickler would not elaborate, as some have, on the blame game. He said Monday that MSHA made a commitment to not talk about results of the investigation into the Crandall Canyon collapse until victims' families had been talked to first.
Some say mine co-owner Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, is to blame for the collapse. Others include MSHA in their accusations. Murray is named in a lawsuit filed last April by the victims' families.
"MSHA's finger is in this pie, too," said Mike Dalpiaz, international vice president for the United Mine Workers of America.
Last spring the Labor Department issued its own report, saying MSHA was negligent leading up to the Crandall Canyon collapse. As for the cause, University of Utah seismologists last month said a mine collapse set off a seismic event that registered as a 3.9 magnitude shock during a 50-acre cave-in. Initially, Murray insisted an earthquake caused the collapse.
Dalpiaz, who is based in Price, referred to how MSHA agreed to the type of work that was happening inside the mine at the time. He described the process of pulling, or dismantling, pillars of coal that help stabilize a mine ceiling.
"You can pull pillars anywhere, and it's a safe way of mining," Dalpiaz said.
But he said workers in the Crandall Canyon mine were also pulling "barrier pillars," which are much larger coal-based structures intended to provide added strength underneath a mountain of "cover." Pulling the barriers, Dalpiaz added, is "totally taboo," although it's not against regulations.
"Everybody else leaves them in there you just don't mess with them," Dalpiaz said.
Some mines are allowed to pull pillars, he added, if it's in a plan that is agreed upon by regulators and the mine owner.
Miner Don Erickson, of Helper, died in the Crandall Canyon Mine collapse. His son Brandon Erickson was invited to the symposium in Salt Lake City this week.
Erickson said he planned on staying at the symposium for two full days of reports about safety improvements to the industry.
"I'm just here to support the safety aspect of it," Erickson said. Based on what he learned Monday, he added, "It seems it will be better in the future."
Wendy Black, wife of Dale Black, one of three men who died trying to rescue the trapped miners, still has several relatives in mining. She also had a tuned ear to safety improvements.
"If we can help save one coal miner with all this help, it'll be worth it," Black said.
A moment of silence was held for Erickson's father and the others who died at Crandall Canyon.
"It was honorable," Erickson said about the recognition of his father. "I just wish that he was still here."
The younger Erickson worked for more than four years in Utah's Skyline Mine and said that, generally, the level of safety from one mine to the next was pretty high. He's now a diesel mechanic. Erickson said mining is a safe industry until someone, he wouldn't specify who, makes the wrong decisions on how or where to mine.
Sen. Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, who made a 30-year career in the mining industry, said there is "huge" pressure coming from mine safety issues these days.
"It's all with good intentions, and it has to happen," Dmitrich said.
He believes there should have been more oversight in the plan approval process for Crandall Canyon and that the way coal was being mined there is not typical of how it's done out West, with huge mountains of rock above mines far below the surface.
Huntington Mayor Hilary Gordon was impressed by communication and miner location detector devices that were talked about Monday.
"I always felt maybe the technology was right there," Gordon said about what sort of technology could have been used by Crandall Canyon miners prior to the collapse. "If only they could have pinpointed where those men were."
Although Dalpiaz called the state's new mine safety director a "cop without a gun," Gordon and Dmitrich said they are grateful for Garth J. Nielsen's new role. Nielsen was appointed by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. earlier this month.
Though there will be oversight from Nielsen, he has no regulatory control over mines in his position as director of the new Office of Coal Mine Safety.
"Maybe we would have got an alert that there was a potential problem," Dmitrich said about having someone like Nielsen on board sooner.
Gordon called Nielsen a "foot in the door" that miners may need in the future when a safety issue comes up.
Dalpiaz was much more blunt about safety concerns at Crandall Canyon.
"If that mine would have been unionized, that particular mining practice never would have happened," he said.
The problem these days, Dalpiaz said, is that with a bad economy and an "intimidating" atmosphere that silences some miners, no one will speak up for fear of losing their job."They don't have a voice," he said. "These guys are just so intimidated."
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