On 2:48 a.m. this Wednesday, one year will have passed.
One year since unsafe mining practices caught up with folks at Crandall Canyon Mine, causing a cave-in that mine co-owner Robert Murray quickly tried to gloss over as a "seismic event." One year since six men were, we can only hope, killed instantly, and 10 days less than one year since three others died trying to rescue them.
Utahns are not newcomers to these types of disasters. The worst happened on May 1, 1900, in Scofield, killing at least 200 men. But there have been many others through the years. Each has provided lessons.
What have we learned so far from Crandall Canyon?
For one, that even in the 21st century, too many mine operators have an illogical view of profits versus expenses. That became clear recently when federal Mine Safety and Health Administration Director Richard Stickler visited the Deseret News editorial board.
Stickler, a soft-spoken man who started his professional life as an underground miner and decided to come out of retirement to head MSHA because "to be asked to serve and say 'No' ... I won't do that," called it a "culture that needs to change in the industry."
How does that culture work? When federal inspectors show up at mines, they sometimes are threatened, and not just by mine operators, although they can be as tough as bouncers.
"We've had operators deny us access to the property," Stickler said. "But you even get miners saying to our people, 'Look, you're going to shut us down. You're writing all these violations. I'm going to lose my job."'
Stickler stresses that every law and rule on the books today "exists because miners have lost their lives." But that kind of logic doesn't go far when mine operators view those rules as impediments. He recommends an approach that works in other industries.
"They should empower the employees to point out unsafe conditions and unsafe practices," he said. "A lot of mine operators don't want to hear anything from the employees. Matter of fact, if the employee says anything too loud, they're liable to get fired."
And here's where logic comes in. Compare the costs Crandall Canyon's owners have had to bear because of the disaster, in terms of money, an unspeakable human toll and the possibility of criminal charges, with the cost of keeping up with rules and regulations. Rather than trying to hide or downplay previous "coal outbursts" in the mine leading up to the disaster, what if they had been upfront, reported the incidents within 15 minutes as required by law and empowered employees to talk about the problem?
The fines alone for violations that MSHA deemed led to the disaster come to $1.8 million. How does that compare with the costs of doing things right from the start? What are the cost benefits of viewing inspectors as friends, rather than foes?
But the second thing we have learned is that MSHA itself hasn't kept up with the times. Crandall Canyon's flawed plans for retreat mining were evaluated and approved the way plans have been evaluated for years, even though a sophisticated computer analysis at the administration's Pittsburgh office likely would have revealed problems.
Stickler is careful how he answers questions about this. "They had the expertise to evaluate this plan the way they've always evaluated plans," he said of his engineers in Denver. "It's easy after you have a failure to step back and say it wasn't adequate, and we should have done something different." But, to be sure, MSHA's policy now is to send all retreat-mining plans to Pittsburgh for review, and the agency is looking to hire more engineers to do that work. In four months, about 12 of 13 plans have been sent there, he said.
Lost in all the focus on Crandall Canyon is the fact mining is becoming safer. By MSHA's reckoning, fatality rates in three of the last four years have been the lowest in history.
Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: [email protected]