UtahMineCollapse-Repo 03-31

Inspector general says federal regulators ’negligent’ in Utah mine collapse

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Associated Press Writer

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A federal inspector who has nothing to do with mining safety flagged problems at Utah’s Crandall Canyon months before nine people died there last summer.


The Bureau of Land Management leases federal land for mining but isn’t responsible for safety. Yet one of its lease inspectors consistently raised questions about cave-in dangers at Crandall Canyon, according to a report Monday from a government watchdog that largely portrayed the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration as asleep at the switch.

"Thing(s) should get interesting soon," the BLM inspector wrote of cave-in dangers July 10.

Six miners who died in a collapse Aug. 6 remain entombed at the mine. Another cave-in 10 days later killed three people trying to reach the trapped men.

The report from Elliot Lewis, assistant inspector general for the U.S. Department of Labor, said MSHA was negligent in approving a faulty roof-control plan for Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp.

The report questioned the agency’s approval for retreat mining, which involves yanking supporting pillars of coal from inside the mine and letting the roof collapse as miners and equipment work their way out.

In the same report, MSHA director Richard Stickler disputed that his agency was negligent or that it was unduly influenced by the mine operator.

"We take exception to the inspector general’s use of headline-grabbing language that is unsupported by facts or evidence," MSHA spokesman Matthew Faraci said.

Murray Energy did not respond to requests for comment.


The inspector general’s report placed much of the blame for fatal accidents on MSHA’s district staff and said agency headquarters exercised little or no oversight.

The district, it said, ignored Crandall Canyon’s history of mining-induced collapses by failing to check with the University of Utah’s Seismograph Stations, which logs ground-shaking events.

"The inspector general’s report highlights the fact that miners performing retreat mining in this country remain at serious risk because of MSHA’s deeply flawed process," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

The inspector general’s office said it didn’t try to determine the reasons for the mine collapse. Instead, the report blamed MSHA for failing to adequately show the mining practice was safe, saying the agency’s decision lacked documentation and transparency.

The agency "clearly failed to fulfill its duty to protect the Crandall Canyon miners," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Kennedy had requested the report.

The report recommended nine policy changes to MSHA Director Richard E. Stickler, who said his agency was acting on the suggestions.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, characterized himself as troubled by the agency’s management.

"Mining is a dangerous enterprise under the best of circumstances, which is why regulatory agencies must do all they can to prevent the worst from happening," Hatch said. "Clearly, the report indicates MSHA must do a better job documenting how it approves, monitors and enforces roof-control plans."


Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, was more blunt, asserting MSHA allowed itself to be "bullied" by Murray Energy Corp.’s aggressive mining.

"Many at the upper levels of MSHA are more interested in helping mine operators increase production than they are in helping miners stay safe," he said.

MSHA officials rejected the criticism.

Crandall Canyon is one of many Utah mines affiliated with Murray Energy.

MSHA on Monday released a copy of a citation against a Murray Energy subsidiary for explosive coal-dust hazards at the West Ridge mine.

The citation, which carries a $118,000 fine, asserts that mine operators ignored repeated warnings to clean a thick layer of coal dust on electrical equipment inside a coal-crushing shed. MSHA officials last week disclosed the case to reporters but had offered no details.

Less than two weeks ago, another company mine, the Tower mine, was slapped with $420,000 in fines for "flagrant" safety violations involving explosive hazards.

On Friday, Murray Energy’s UtahAmerican Energy Inc. indefinitely shut down 2,750-foot-deep Tower, the deepest coal mine in the U.S., because of "unusual stress conditions" on mine pillars.



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