Sleep tight, Utah miners. After the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster, legislators passed a law to improve fast responses to mine accidents. Lawmakers made it possible for miners to receive safety training and create more efficient disaster-response teams but not much new to prevent accidents. It's like closing the barn door after the horse got out.

This demonstrates the disconnect between the public's outcry to prevent another disaster and how the Legislature responded. The state quickly put together the Utah Mine Safety Commission to recommend ways to improve mine safety and determine if the state should play a role in doing so; however, that idea was quickly squelched by a commission member and senator from a mining district who said there was no need for state involvement — the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration was sufficient.

The commission made more than 30 recommendations, primarily focusing on responding to disasters, including a toothless Utah Office of Coal Mine Safety in the Utah Industrial Commission. And, without much debate, the Legislature adopted many of the recommendations.

Now, we know differently. Last week Richard Stickler, MSHA's director, released a Department of Labor report finding fault with MSHA's ability to adequately inspect and approve mine safety plans — that had there been more scrutiny of the safety plans and awareness of earlier safety problems that went unreported, perhaps the disaster could have been prevented. Early in the disaster, mine inspectors noted that two sets of eyes looking at the problem would help. And that is part of the answer. Though there are several agencies responsible for overseeing mines — MSHA; Bureau of Land Management; Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining — they fail to effectively talk to one another. Everyone and no one is responsible to make sure mines are safe. There is no one who can connect the dots, nor anyone who can be held accountable.

The state has responsibility for the health and safety of workers, including mine workers. If anything, we have learned that the mine safety laws have no teeth when it comes to prevention and holding mine owners responsible for the safety of their workers. There are seldom any meaningful consequences when safety violations occur; rather the mine industry seems to have paralyzed MSHA's complaint procedures, appealing even the smallest violations and creating a huge backlog of appeals. Based on the new findings, the state should revise its policies and programs to focus on prevention and state involvement in vigorous oversight to assure compliance with the laws. It has become clear we cannot leave it to the feds to assure the safety of our workers.

Following are some specific policies the state should consider adopting:

Prevention: Inspect and certify the safety of mines in Utah consistent with federal MSHA bylaws and regulations or applicable state statutes/regulations; inspect mines randomly and/or after complaints are received. The Division of Oil, Gas and Mining should be responsible for issuing permits, but before a permit is issued it must have the signature of the Industrial Commission certifying the facility is a safe and healthy workplace. And conduct annual inspections of all mines in Utah and submit an annual report of findings to the governor.

Investigation: Immediately investigate any mine accident, make findings and issue citations — including what corrective action must be taken — and have the power to impose penalties for failure to comply, including to close the mine and report the state office's findings and decision to the governor.

Individual complaints/violations: Provide for the filing and investigation of possible mine safety violations by individuals, and protection from retaliation by employers for reporting a complaint.

The state should focus on preventing mine accidents, not just train how to respond after the fact. And it's not a matter of resources. Rather, it is a matter of making a commitment to protect our most valuable resources, our hard-working men, women and their families.


A Utah native, John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations; been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards; and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and as a member of the commission on Hispanic education. E-mail: [email protected]