An unnatural disaster
Robert Murray, a mine owner obviously in need of clinical help, insisted from day one that the August 6 cave-in at his Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah was a natural disaster, triggered by an earthquake that no one could have anticipated. More than two weeks later, after all efforts to locate six trapped miners had failed and after three rescuers had died trying to reach them, Murray was still trying to pin the blame on an "evil mountain."
Every coal miner in America knew better. And by now, thanks largely to solid reporting by the Salt Lake Tribune, we all know what was really evil about the Crandall Canyon disaster.
There was nothing even remotely natural about it. The cave-in was caused not by an earthquake but by Murray's mining plan, which called for removing coal pillars that should have been left in place - as the mine's previous owner had prudently done. The violent bursting of pillars in a nearby section of the mine in March - the result of overly aggressive mining, and a clear warning of trouble ahead - should have been reported to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), but wasn't. These unnatural acts of commission and omission set the stage for the calamitous failures that brought the mountain down, first on Murray's miners and then on their rescuers.
Congressional hearings next week will focus on Murray's recklessness and MSHA's failure to rein him in. The hearings are necessary and may even be useful, but we worry that they will fail to pinpoint the other evil that lurks behind this disaster.
Yes, Mr. Murray is a throwback, a my-way-or-the-highway bully who belongs in another century - the 19th, say. Yes, MSHA is a broken agency in desperate need of the kind of leadership we can't expect from our current president. (But on that point: at least until 1/20/09, those who want MSHA chief Richard Stickler replaced should be careful what they wish for.) And yes, it's obvious that the timetable for mine safety improvements mandated by Congress last year needs to be accelerated.
But what you won't see at the witness table during next week's hearings are the people who really ought to be in the hot seat: Murray's co-conspirators in the coal industry.
Unlike Murray, the CEOs of most of the nation's top coal producers are savvy enough to stay far away from TV cameras. But they still bear responsibility for the absence of the mine safety technology that could have saved the miners lost in the Sago disaster last year and perhaps those trapped at Crandall Canyon this month.
We wrote a bit about this last week. We continue to be haunted by the still largely unexamined story of how the industry fought - successfully - to keep MSHA from requiring modern mine communications technology in underground coal mines.
The story begins long ago and far away. On the morning of July 16, 1986, an explosion in the Moura No. 4 underground mine in Queensland, Australia, left 12 miners unaccounted for. Mine rescue teams hampered by debris and poor visibility were unable to locate the missing miners until the evening of the following day, about 36 hours after the explosion. All were dead.
In the wake of that disaster, the Australian government launched an innovative program to spur development of through-the-earth communication and tracking technology. Australian coal producers agreed to assess themselves a per-ton fee, with the revenues used by the government to support companies - mostly small entrepreneurial start-ups - whose concepts showed promise.
One of those companies - Mine Site Technologies (MST), started by a mine owner with a technological bent - developed an ultra-low-frequency paging system able to transmit text messages to miners through thousands of feet of rock. Ironically, the Personal Emergency Device (PED) system developed in Australia was based on a system developed in the U.S. in the 1970s by the Bureau of Mines, MSHA's predecessor - a system which was successfully mine-tested but then quietly shelved after U.S. coal operators ignored the government's feeble efforts to promote it.
The PED system - which transmits a text message to a receiver attached to the miner's cap-lamp battery, and flashes his lamp to let him know he has a message - was voluntarily adopted by most of Australia's roughly 60 underground coal mines. MST then lined up sales representatives in the U.S., expecting coal operators here to see that PEDs were productivity-enhancing tools as well as emergency devices: miners could be instantly textmessaged about anything, from where to move production equipment to how to escape a fire or roof fall.
But U.S. sales were never more than minimal. Most operators just didn't want to spend the money - about $100,000 for the transmitter installation and $700 per miner for the receivers - to equip mines still relying on 1950s-era mine phone systems, even though phone wires are usually severed in explosions and fires. Ironically, it was in Utah that PED sales were strongest - thanks in part to MST's aggressive Western-U.S. rep, based in Price (about 25 miles from Crandall Canyon) - and it was in Utah that the PED system dramatically proved its value.
On the evening of November 25, 1998, a fire broke out at Cyprus Mining's Willow Creek Mine near Price. Forty-five miners were underground. As MSHA reported at the time: "The mine manager ordered an evacuation using a unique system which operates like a pager and is worn by most miners. This 'PED' system (Personal Emergency Device) allows for constant contact with miners, even those working in remote areas... A message was sent to the miners: 'Mine fire - evacuate.' The miners were safely evacuated in about 45 minutes."
45 lives saved in 45 minutes: You might have thought that after Willow Creek, PED sales would soar. But operators balked, rarely mentioning cost but always citing one alleged shortcoming after another: it's a one-way system, you don't know if the message has been received, it doesn't always achieve 100-percent coverage, maybe something better will come along - don't rush us. So sales remained sluggish, and of course there was no impetus to develop the next-generation, two-way system that MST researchers were working on.
And now we come to the bitter end of this sad tale. Although then-MSHA chief Davitt McAteer tried to push the industry to voluntarily adopt the PED system, he made little progress - but was reluctant to launch a formal rulemaking procedure, aware that the industry's lawyers would find ways to stall forever, or at least until he was out of office.
Which is what happened anyway. McAteer, a Clinton appointee, departed in 2001, replaced by a Bush appointee with suspiciously close ties to the industry he was charged with regulating. Later that year, an explosion at a mine in Alabama trapped 12 miners, all of whom perished. Two years later - in the course of adopting a new rule aimed at improving mine evacuations - MSHA explained, in the official Federal Register, why it still wasn't going to push the industry:
"MSHA has not made the PED system a requirement of the final rule. MSHA believes that the PED system is generally effective and encourages its use. However, since technology is constantly changing, newer systems that may be as, or more, effective than the PED may be developed."
Read that last sentence again. We've never seen a worse excuse for fatal inaction or a better example of what's wrong with the coal industry and mine safety enforcement. Evil is where you find it. Bob Murray finds it in a mountain. We find it in the Federal Register: Volume 68, page 53041.