More than anything, I wanted Richard Stickler, head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, to throw Crandall Canyon Mine co-owner Robert Murray under the bus last week. Stickler was in town to explain the findings of MSHA's investigation in the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster, which killed nine men six men trapped in the initial collapse, and three rescuers who were killed 10 days later during rescue efforts.
A total of $1.8 million in fines has been levied against the mine operator, Genwal Resources Inc., whose parent company is Murray Energy Corp., and Agapito Associates Inc., a mining engineering company based in Grand Junction, Colo.
The shorthand version of what happened at Crandall Canyon Mine was the mine engineering firm conducted a faulty analysis of the deep underground mine's design, according to MSHA. The operator failed to report to MSHA three previous "coal outbursts" prior to the Aug. 6 collapse. Although MSHA approved the mining plan, Genwal's failure to report the previous outbursts left no opportunity to alter the retreat mining plan or stop it.
When asked about dealing with Murray following the Aug. 6 collapse, Stickler was diplomatic. The bombastic, confrontational Murray (my words, not Stickler's) is a "tough person to work with," Stickler said in meeting with the Deseret News editorial board last week.
This was Stickler's second visit to our editorial board. I can't say that I know him well, but I have a sense of his manner. He's the kind of person who can be counted to be the grown-up in the room. Stickler wasn't going to throw anyone under the bus. The fines, the highest ever handed down by the agency for a coal-mining incident, spoke volumes about the gravity of the violations.
Besides, Stickler has plenty other issues to be concerned about as a regulator these days. Federal mine inspectors are receiving threats. Some mine owners will not grant inspectors required access. Mines that are cited for violations are waging full-scale appeals, which is a drain on MSHA's resources.
Meanwhile, the safety of men and women who work at mines coal, metal and nonmetal can be compromised when mine inspectors cannot properly conduct their jobs or some mine owners back up the system with appeals to avoid or delay paying fines for offenses. Yes, they're entitled to appeals, but for every single violation? It's preposterous.
If it can be demonstrated that mine owners intentionally blocked inspections or threatened inspectors, criminal charges can be handed down.
Hearing all of this, I have had a change of heart about Utah's Office of Coal Mine Safety. Stickler was head of Pennsylvania's state mining regulatory agency. It had 80 mine inspectors on staff, which makes sense since Pennsylvania has a lot more mines than Utah. The agency even inspected mines where mushrooms are grown.
Based on that experience, Stickler says, "Two eyes are better than one," noting that his agency attempted to cooperate with MSHA officials.
Utah will never have 80 mine inspectors. I seriously doubt that there are 80 federal mine inspectors in the Rocky Mountain region. But the state Office of Coal Mine Safety will monitor mine safety and act as a liaison to MSHA.
What if there had been such an office in March 2007 when the first coal outbursts in Crandall Canyon Mine occurred? What if that person had contacted the MSHA inspector assigned to the mine? It would have been an opening for the MSHA inspector to review conditions in the mine and determine whether approved practices were being followed.It's all speculation, of course. It won't bring back nine good men, six of whom are entombed in the mine. But knowing what we now know about about events at Crandall Canyon Mine, men and women in Utah's mining industries deserve the benefit of the doubt.
Marjorie Cortez, who has developed a craving for mushrooms grown in a Pennsylvania mine, is a Deseret News editorial writer. E-mail her at [email protected]