Whitesburg KY

Union boss tells Senate MSHA had to know mine was unsafe

Government mine safety officials should have known that Utah’s Crandall Canyon mine was unsafe and closed it before the collapse in August that killed nine people, a union official told senators last week.

“This mining plan should never have been approved,” Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees mine safety. “There should have been a much closer look at this.”

Mine Safety and Health Administration chief Richard Stickler defended his agency, saying his inspectors and several outside engineers carefully evaluated the mine plan and believed it was safe. He promised that an investigation of the accident will thoroughly scrutinize MSHA’s role.

Last week’s hearing was the first to examine the Aug. 6 mine collapse. Several congressional panels are investigating, and lawmakers are expected to hold more hearings to look at whether new mining safety laws are needed in the wake of the accident.

Six miners trapped during the initial cave-in are presumed dead, entombed 1,500 feet below ground. Three rescuers were killed Aug. 16 while trying to tunnel to the men.

Senators were skeptical that MSHA had done everything it could to prevent the accident.

Both cave-ins are believed to have been caused by a “bump,” or spontaneous explosion from the mine roof or wall, caused by pressure from the heavy mountain above. Bumps are common in Utah’s deep mines.

Roberts and Davitt McAteer, who headed MSHA under President Clinton, said the Crandall Canyon mine was particularly prone to bumps because the operators there were mining using a common but dangerous technique that puts extreme pressure on the roof.

A bump in March caused the operators to abandon a section of the mine. Roberts and others have said MSHA should have seen that as a warning and closed the mine.

Stickler said MSHA and the mine operators consulted several experts about the mine plan and the rescue and that they were confident that they were doing the right thing.

But Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., pushed Stickler on the point.

“It appears your department wasn’t paying adequate attention to these bumps,” Specter snapped. “Isn’t there just a blatant failure by MSHA to recognize the problems caused by these bumps?”

Stickler has faced scrutiny since the rescue efforts began. In the early days, he allowed the domineering mine co-owner Bob Murray to publicly contradict MSHA and say that an earthquake had caused the accident. Murray also was allowed to take media crews and family members into the unstable mine.

On Sept. 5, Stickler told senators MSHA “didn’t disapprove” when Murray led tours of the mine, and no one was taken to an area that was unsafe.

Senators questioned that as well. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chaired the hearing, said the media visited an area that later collapsed. He said his committee is still investigating whether Stickler could have had more control over Murray.

Operators of deep mines should be required to thoroughly plan how to rescue miners trapped after a bump, McAteer said. MSHA also must redouble efforts to improve communication between the miners and people on the surface, he said.

Senators had invited testimony from Murray, but Senate staffers said Murray declined to appear.

Senators are skeptical that Stickler’s agency is doing enough to enforce mine safety rules. Before the Utah collapse, there were the disasters last year at West Virginia’s Sago mine and two others. The three accidents helped make 2006 the deadliest year for coal mining in more than a decade.

Senators want to know whether more regulations are necessary and if the safety improvements mandated after Sago are being put in place fast enough.

“What the hell does it take to shake up that agency?” Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said.

“MSHA was intended to be a strong federal agency with the authority to investigate, penalize and, when necessary, shut down a coal mine for safety violations,” Byrd said. “It is infuriating to watch MSHA, even after the tragedy at Sago, continue its tepid minimalist approach to mine safety.”

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