As the one-year anniversary of the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster approaches on Wednesday, a look back over the last 12 months shows the tragedy did not shock Utah mine owners into improving safety.
They still consistently and repeatedly broke even the most essential of safety rules during the past year, a Deseret News study shows.
"We inspect. We write a violation. The operator corrects it. They pay a fine. We go back next quarter and same thing next quarter, next year, year after year," Richard E. Stickler, assistant labor secretary in charge of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, told the Deseret News in discussing its findings.
The Crandall Canyon Mine col-
lapse, which entombed six miners, also led to the death 10 days later of three would-be rescuers who perished in a subsequent cave-in.
"I hope we can change the culture," Stickler said. "I know that every one of these violations can be prevented," but it takes money and effort. And Stickler complains: "In the past, many operators have been driven by the bottom line" more than safety.
They still may be, judging by the violations they amassed since the Crandall Canyon disaster. The Deseret News review of MSHA data shows, for example:
• Federal inspectors cited more than 1,300 safety violations in Utah underground coal mines since the disaster a rate higher than the average for the previous four years. That 1,300 is besides another score of violations issued for the disaster itself.
• At least 368 of those violations about a quarter of them after Crandall Canyon were considered "significant and substantial" threats to health and life.
• Inspectors proposed fines of at least $1.2 million for violations in Utah in that time with fines still yet to be proposed for nearly 400 of the violations found. That again is besides the coal-mining-record $1.8 million in fines proposed for violations arising from the Crandall Canyon disaster.
• Crandall Canyon Mine operator Robert E. Murray ranks No. 7 in the nation for the number of violations found at his mines nationwide 1,543 from Oct. 1 to March 31.
• Murray also has contested more violations 1,367, or 89 percent of all those cited at his mines than all but one other mine operator in the nation in that time.
"Safety has to start at the top of every company. If a miner's working for a company, and the supervisor and the mine superintendent and the manager don't support that miner ... it's really tough for miners to always do the right thing. That's the direction that we need to move in," Stickler said.
But despite the Crandall Canyon disaster and all the attention it generated, violation rates actually worsened in Utah afterward.
The at least 1,324 violations found in Utah by inspectors mean that the 10 mines active during significant periods of the past year averaged about 132 violations each. In comparison, during the four years before that, active coal mines in Utah averaged just 109 violations a year each.
The quarter of those violations that were for "significant and substantial" threats came for a total of 118 different types of violations. But some were more common than others and were repeated time and again at some mines.
For example, one of every six of the significant violations was for dangerous accumulations of coal dust, which could lead to fires or explosions.
That led to some big proposed fines including huge, separate proposed fines of $118,800 and $60,000 at the West Ridge Mine (controlled by Murray), $16,867 at the Emery Mine (Consol Energy) and $15,570 at the Dugout Canyon Mine (Arch Coal).
Inspection reports about the West Ridge Mine said the "hazardous condition was extensive, present on all levels of the building and would be obvious to the most casual observer." It said the coal dust even had "accumulated inside electrical control boxes, which are all considered potential ignition sources."
Another recurring significant violation was for failing to have two clear, adequate escapeways for miners. Inspectors issued citations for it 25 times in Utah in the past year. Among fines resulting were two of $38,500 each at Skyline Mine No. 3, controlled by Arch Coal.
Also common were significant violations for failing to take adequate steps to prevent falling of the mine roof, face or ribs. Inspectors issued 19 citations for that. Among resulting fines was one for $5,080 at the Sufco Mine and one of $3,143 at the West Ridge Mine.
At least 10 major violations were for not developing or following adequate ventilation plans. Resulting fines include one for $6,996 at Murray's now-closed Aberdeen Mine and another for $3,400 at Murray's West Ridge Mine.
And 29 significant violations were for failure to maintain machinery in a safe operating condition. Proposed fines include $5,961 at the Aberdeen Mine and $4,689 at West Ridge. Both are being contested by Murray.
Data also show that most types of violations were not just found once in mines but were often repeated during the year.
For example at the West Ridge Mine, 34 different types of violations were repeated at least once during the year and one, for excess coal dust, was repeated 22 times. The Horizon mine had 30 different types of violations repeated. The Deer Creek Mine had 28. The Bear Canyon No. 4 mine had 27.
And on at least 30 occasions in the past year, inspectors have cited Utah coal mines for serious negligence through what are called Section 104(d) violations, given when an operator has engaged in "aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence."
The $118,000 fine at Murray's West Ridge Mine for dangerous coal dust accumulation was one such citation. Fines have yet to be proposed, or at least reported online, for most of the other Section 104(d) violations cited in the past year.
The Bear Canyon No. 4 Mine had the most such violations in the past year 10. The Aberdeen, Horizon and West Ridge mines had six each. And the Emery and Deer Creek mines had one each.
Stickler said such violations are coming at a time that coal prices are high, and mine operators should be more able to afford improved safety.
"They can have an inspection program where they find unsafe conditions before MSHA gets there. That's the way it should be," he said, noting MSHA inspectors are at mines only about 5 percent of the time.
He adds that if miners point out problems, MSHA has found that "a lot of mine operators don't want to hear anything from their employees. As a matter of fact, if anyone says anything, they are liable to get fired. That's a culture that needs to change in the industry. The tools I have is what Congress gives me, and basically a big part of that is enforcement of the law. "
Stickler said MSHA has intentionally been tougher with fines to try to improve safety.
Proposed fines in Utah mines during the past year total just under $1.2 million, but fines have yet to be proposed for nearly 400 of the violations cited. In comparison, Utah mines as a group averaged about $835,000 a year in fines during the previous four years (and more mines were operating in those years than last year).
MSHA data also show that some Utah mine operators are among leaders in overall violations received by their mines nationally.
Consol Energy, which operates the Emery Mine in Utah, is No. 2 nationally with 2,515 violations between Oct. 1 and March 31. Robert Murray (the Crandall Canyon operator who also controls the active West Ridge and Pinnacle Mines and the idled Aberdeen and South Crandall mines) was No. 7 with 1,543.
At No. 18 with 583 violations was Arch Coal (which controls the Sufco, Skyline No. 3 and Dugout Canyon mines in Utah). At No. 78 with 122 violations was PacifiCorp, controller of Utah's Deer Creek Mine. Just behind at No. 79 with 117 violations is Cecil Ann Walker, controller of Utah's Horizon Mine.
But miners are often delaying payment of fines. Many are automatically protesting virtually all fines they receive. Stickler said that can lead to expensive, drawn-out hearings so complicated "that you would think it is a murder case" even for small fines such as $1,000.
Stickler said operators who protest almost all fines "just flat out are not showing good faith," and added, "how can you show any good faith when you expect that MSHA is wrong 100 percent of the time?'
He said the backlog of handling fines being protested is a "train wreck that Congress is going to have to settle."
With all that, how safe is coal mining?
"It's getting safer," Stickler said. Nationally, he said three of the last four years had the lowest death rates for hours worked ever, and the lowest rates for injuries and work days lost to them. He said that has come as MSHA has increased the fines it has proposed
He said MSHA has a net increase of 170 inspectors. "As we spend more time at the job site, we're going to find unsafe conditions, write violations and get them corrected."
Still, he worries, "a lot of people don't see the importance of laws." But he says almost every law written resulted from a problem that killed miners. He adds: "There's other people who feel like, 'I can get away with this,' like on the highway, we think we can sneak another 10 miles an hour over the speed limit." That reasoning hurts safety.
"We're going in the right direction, but we certainly have a long ways to go," Stickler said.
As a sign of how far the state needs to go: Utah ranks sixth in the nation for coal-mining deaths since 1996.Utah coal mines have had 24 deaths in that time, behind the much more well-known coal-mining states of West Virginia (124 deaths), Kentucky (108), Virginia and Alabama (35 each), and Pennsylvania (29), according to MSHA data.