Crandall Canyon: Families determined to get 'straight answers'
At committees' hearings, families will testify to the miners' sacrifice
By Mike Gorrell and Thomas Burr The Salt Lake Tribune
September 30, 2007
Steve Allred is not exactly sure what he will say Wednesday when he appears before a congressional committee to talk about the deaths of his brother, Kerry, and eight other men last month in the Crandall Canyon mine disaster.
But his general point will be clear: He wants to know why the mine's walls imploded on his brother and five co-workers on Aug. 6, and then again on Aug. 16, killing three more rescuers who were trying to get them out.
And he is adamant about ensuring that their sacrifices are not forgotten.
"I don't know what the hell I'm going to testify on, but I guarantee you there's a whole lot I'd like to see come out of this," said Allred, of Cleveland in Emery County. "Otherwise, all those nine people will have died in vain."
Allred and several other family members of Crandall Canyon victims are expected to testify Wednesday before the House Education and Labor Committee - which also will hear from Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America union.
The House proceeding will come the day after the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will conduct an oversight hearing into the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), with particular emphasis on the agency's role in the Crandall Canyon disaster.
Of the two, the House committee session is likely to be much more poignant. Committee chairman Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., wanted to focus on the families afflicted by last month's tragic events.
"Their perspective is very important," a committee aide said, noting that staff members contacted the family members directly or through their Salt Lake City attorneys, Ed Havas and Colin King.
It was still unclear on Friday precisely which family members will testify and which will just observe.
Sheila Phillips of Orangeville, mother of Brandon Phillips, who had worked at Crandall Canyon only briefly before he was buried in the first catastrophic collapse of the mine's walls, said she intends to bring some of her son's memorabilia and to let representatives know a little more about him as a person.
"I'll tell them he was a good kid getting everything all together," she said. "He was trying his best to get a better job and move out and get on with his life. There was a new Tahoe [truck] he wanted so he got a good paying job."
The thought of appearing before Congress, however, was somewhat intimidating to Phillips, whose brother, Ray Snow, died in the 1984 Wilberg mine disaster.
"I'm going to learn to be a public speaker whether I want to or not," she said.
Cesar Sanchez, whose brother Manuel was one of the six fatally trapped miners, said Friday that job opportunities may preclude him from going to Washington, D.C.
But if he can go, he wants "some straight answers" to questions, feeling unsatisfied with what he heard from MSHA's disaster investigation team in a midweek briefing for family members.
"They were telling us they want to fill the portals on the mine," Sanchez said. "They went in a couple of times and they say they have all they can get. I don't think they got too much."
Allred, similarly, is dismayed by the lack of information available about what is happening.
"I'm upset with the way this [disaster] has been handled," he said. "I've accepted the fact Kerry is gone, but I haven't accepted that more isn't being done. It's very sad. It just seems like it's gone off the books. It's not there any more. I hope they let me ask some questions and make some statements."
The House committee aide said neither mine co-owner Robert Murray nor MSHA officials were invited to Wednesday's session, in part because the committee has not received all of the documents it requested from the agency, Murray Energy Corp. or its subsidiary that operated Crandall Canyon, UtahAmerican Energy Inc.
Miller issued a subpoena last week, demanding internal communications from MSHA and the Labor Department, which countered by calling the action "political grandstanding." The department has turned over more than 10,000 pages since Miller originally requested scores of documents in August.
Tuesday's Senate oversight hearing is titled "Current Mine Safety Disasters: Issues and Challenges" and includes two panels of witnesses.
The first features Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's administrator for coal mine safety; Jeffrey Kohler, associate director for Mine Safety and Health Research in Pittsburgh; and Joseph Osterman, managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board.
On the second panel are Dennis O'Dell, the UMWA's health and safety administrator and a member of the Utah Mine Safety Commission appointed by Huntsman after the disaster; Robert Ferriter, director of the mine safety and health program at Colorado School of Mines; and Bruce Watzman, the National Mining Association's vice president for safety and health.
Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich said Watzman will tell senators what the mining industry has done in the year since Congress passed the MINER Act following three fatal coal-mining accidents early in 2006.
"We feel it's important to say that we are not sitting on our hands waiting for MSHA or Congress to do something," Popovich said. "We have our plate full right now implementing a very comprehensive law."
Watzman also will encourage Congress not to rush into more regulation because it may not improve miner safety, Popovich added.
This week's congressional hearings are the second and third since the Crandall Canyon disaster. A Senate Appropriations subcommittee conducted a hearing in early September.
Mine co-owner Robert Murray declined to appear at that hearing. Committee chairman Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he may use subpoena power to compel Murray to appear at the next hearing.
Mine disaster hearings
Two congressional committees will address the Crandall Canyon mine disaster in hearings this week:
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will meet at 8 a.m. Tuesday (MDT) in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.
The House Education and Labor Committee hearing will take place at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday (MDT) in the Rayburn House Office Building.