Long before the rubble of Crandall Canyon settled, before even the first of the endless boreholes was drilled to find six trapped miners, the accusations, the finger-pointing and the cries for safety reforms began.

On the national front, Washington's response to the Aug. 6, 2007, disaster has been a year of studies, hearings, playing the blame game — and some reform. The government says that reform is moving at unprecedented speed, while critics say it is slow.

Statewide, coal production is down, the number of coal mines has dropped by three, and, subsequently, mine-related employment has suffered a loss.

Utah's Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. rushed in to appoint an eight-member panel to improve safety in underground coal mining. In January it came up with 45 recommendations, and nearly a year later, the director of the newly created state office of Coal Mine Safety worked his first day on the job.

But, as the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Even Crandall couldn't change that.

• Despite blistering criticism, Richard Stickler has survived to be reappointed head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. The only person MSHA says is not working for it anymore because of the disaster is a man who approved Crandall Canyon's roof safety plans.

• Crandall Canyon Mine operator Robert E. Murray continues as one of the nation's largest coal mine operators, also despite attacks from Congress, a requested criminal investigation and record fines slapped against the Crandall Canyon Mine for the disaster. However, Murray has closed his Crandall Canyon and Aberdeen mines in Utah because of safety concerns.

• The House used concern from the disaster to help pass a new mine safety bill, but the Senate has not yet acted on it. President Bush has threatened to veto it if it is passed, saying it does nothing to advance safety and would only complicate existing safety rules.

Being mired in the prospect of change is something Utah's mining safety director concedes is inherent in the industry.

"Years ago, it was hard to get miners to wear a hard hat," said Garth Nielsen, a 36-year veteran of the coal mining industry. "It was something new, and they didn't think they needed it. Change is difficult for people."

Utah seems to be inching toward change, with Nielsen advocating the implementation of one of the state panel's most urgent recommendations — an improved emergency response plan to mining disasters.

The plan is part of a foundation that Huntsman hopes will ensure greater mine safety.

"Clearly, we have been pointed out as a state that has been deficient in this regard," Huntsman said.

For his part, Nielsen — who most recently served as director of mine development at Interwest Mining — the focus needs to be on the improvement of policies and procedures that promote safety, as well as compromise among all the players.

He said if miners, regulatory agencies and operators are open to working to improve safety within the industry, then more positive changes will happen.

"We have made huge strides in improving the mining industry in the last 20 years," he said.

But, as it typically relates to bureaucracy, advancement on the regulatory front has been more of a sluggish crawl.

Prodded by the disaster, MSHA has been busy proposing rules to implement an earlier mine safety bill passed two years ago. It says it is moving quickly. Critics, again, say the opposite. Some major reforms include much closer scrutiny of out-of-the-ordinary roof plans such as the one that reports say led to disaster at Crandall Canyon.

Many congressional hearings and studies emerged during the year to look at what went wrong at Crandall Canyon — with most pointing some fingers both at Murray, for inadequate mine design where coal was removed from pillars needed to support the roof, and MSHA, for approving the design.

It hasn't seemed to hurt Strickler or Murray much.

Despite the criticism of MSHA, Bush reappointed Stickler as temporary head of MSHA on Jan. 4 — after an earlier yearlong temporary appointment had expired on Dec. 31 — and he will likely serve in that post until the end of the Bush administration.

Murray has also been a target of many of the studies and hearings. For example, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., said an investigation by a labor committee he chairs showed that Murray Energy "disregarded dangerous conditions at the mine, failed to tell federal regulators about these dangers, conducted unauthorized mining and — as a result — exposed its miners to serious risks."

The report by Kennedy's committee also said, "Murray bullied MSHA and got away with it." It said documents showed that Murray and his company would often successfully seek to have tough inspectors fired or reassigned.

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., after his own committee's investigation into the disaster, called for the Justice Department to investigate whether mine operators conspired to withhold data about earlier "bounces" at Crandall Canyon in order to keep mining there.

No charges have resulted to date. Murray Energy continues as one of the nation's largest coal mining companies.

The House in January passed a new mine safety bill — after the families of Crandall Canyon victims sent a letter endorsing it and asking for action.

"We asked for change to assure that our government, through MSHA, is really enforcing safety in the mining industry and not turning a blind eye to dangerous mining practices," the family members wrote. "The bill will also improve the way families are treated after a disaster occurs."

Republicans opposed the bill, and Bush threatened a veto, saying it would complicate existing safety rules.

MSHA, meanwhile, has been acting to issue rules to implement that 2006 mine safety act. For example, in June it proposed a rule requiring coal mines to provide refuges underground that can sustain life for miners who are unable to escape during accidents.

As that was issued, Stickler said MSHA in 18 months had published six final rules in the Federal Register, issued an Emergency Temporary Standard and proposed four additional rules. He said rules had never come at such a fast pace previously.

He also said MSHA also had a net increase of 163 inspectors over the past two years to help increase the pace of inspections — but critics such as Miller have said the rules are still coming too slowly.


E-mail: lee@desnews.com; jlee@desnews.com

CRANDALL CANYON

Faiths united in wake of mine collapse.

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