Utah miners: company disregardfor safety led to mine collapse
BY ALYSON KENNEDYAND CHRIS HOEPPNER HUNTINGTON, Utah, August 15
“We have to stand up and speak for our brothers trapped underground. Murray is more interested in the coal industry and his costs than the lives of the people and their families,” said Tyler Firm, 22, a coal miner who worked two years at the Genwal (now Crandall Canyon) mine until August of last year. “I worked with those miners. Don is my second cousin.”
On August 6, in the middle of a 12-hour shift, six miners were trapped by a collapse in the Crandall Canyon coal mine, owned by Murray Energy Corp. The impact of the collapse, some 1,500 feet underground, registered 3.9 on the Richter scale.
The six men are Brandon Phillips, 24, Carlos Payán, 22, Don Erickson, 50, Kerry Allred, 58, Luis Hernández, 23, and Manuel Sánchez, 41.
Robert Murray, president of the company, contends an earthquake caused the mine to collapse. Government seismologists say that the mine’s collapse registered as an earthquake.
Many miners and mine safety officials say the evidence indicates that intense pressure from a “bounce” forced the mine walls to crash in and the floor to rise up more than two feet.
“It was a bounce,” Jameson Ward, one of four miners who escaped the mine, told the Salt Lake Tribune. Miners in the area say bounces are common in Utah mines many miles beneath high mountains. Pressure on the coal seam causes sudden outbursts of coal and rock, sending debris flying with explosive force.
Ward, 24, told AP that the bounce and rush of air was so strong it nearly pushed his pickup sideways. The dust was so thick his headlamp was useless.
Murray has denied that the company was “retreat” mining at Crandall Canyon at the time. Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration officials say, however, that on June 15 they approved retreat mining in the area that collapsed.
In retreat mining, pillars of coal that support the roof are mined as the crew retreats from the mined area. Eventually the roof falls. It is considered one of the most dangerous mining operations.
Tyler Firm said, “When I worked at Genwal, we were pulling pillars.”
A miner who has been working 12-hour shifts on the rescue effort and asked to remain anonymous for fear of being fired, spoke to the Militant. “There were large mined-out areas on the left and right sides of the section where they were retreat mining, which was a dangerous situation,” he said. “That’s why the mountain came down. I don’t understand why they were allowed to mine there.”
“Sheriff’s deputies are present outside the mine and they keep a close eye on the miners who park their cars near the main road. Miners have been told not to speak to the press,” the worker noted. Earlier collapse in March In March, two sections of Crandall Canyon had collapsed, according to Associated Press. Mine safety experts “questioned whether the company—and the government agency that oversees its work—should have closed the mine then. Instead, operators moved to another section and continued chipping away,” the news agency reported August 14.
The six men currently trapped were working 900 feet from that area. In recent weeks, the floors there had been buckling up from intense pressure, an anonymous source “with intimate knowledge” of the mine told CNN News.
“A member of Manuel Sánchez’s family told a Utah paper that he had expressed concern about safety in one part of the mine,” CNN reported.
Several miners told the Militant that unsafe conditions also exist in the other two Murray Energy mines in the area, Tower and Westridge. Murray Energy Corp. bought the Tower, Crandall Canyon, and Westridge mines from Andalex Resources last year. All these mines are nonunion.
“I quit working at the Tower mine a week and a half before the collapse because of the way Murray runs the mine. We had to work six and seven days a week, rotating shifts every two weeks. You would go to work so completely exhausted that you couldn’t think clearly, never mind see your family,” Tyler Firm said.
Another miner, Juan Duran, said in an interview that there were safety problems both before and after Murray Energy took over the Andalex mines. In the mine, he said, “I would sometimes [roof] bolt by myself in bad top and dangerous levels of methane gas.” Difference in a union mine Duran now works in a union mine, “where you are treated differently,” he said. “You have better training. There are always two bolters with a third man there to watch our back. And I have not been mandatoried once,” in contrast with the six and seven days he was regularly forced to work before.
He said that after Murray Energy bought the mines, the pay for long wall miners and mechanics was increased while wages for other miners were cut. Two holidays and a personal day were eliminated. According to Duran, Murray would have meetings with the miners and say, “If you don’t give me this much production, I will shut your mine down.”
A miner who works for Murray Energy and requested his name be withheld for fear of company retaliation, told the Militant, “Now nonunion companies are starting to do whatever they want, because there are so many nonunion mines. Before, they would pay more to keep the union out.” Pointing to the mine collapse he said, “They shouldn’t have been mining in this.”
Of the 12 working coal mines in the area, only two are union, Dear Creek and Consol, both organized by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).
Several hundred people turned out in support of the trapped miners at vigils in nearby Huntington on the evenings of August 8 and 10. Benefit concerts are planned here for August 15 and 17 to raise funds for the miners’ families.
Bob Butero, UMWA Region 4 director, noted in an August 15 interview the difference between nonunion mines, where workers “don’t participate as miners’ representatives in investigations” of safety problems, and union mines where such problems “would be discussed with the union.”
“If we had the union at Genwal, the miners would have had a choice about going into such dangerous conditions. This is money and greed, that’s all,” said Mack Isaacson, a coal miner from Helper, Utah.