Utah Mine Country, After Disaster, Tells Panel It Fears Overregulation September 26, 2007
HUNTINGTON, Utah, Sept. 25 —
With quiet voices, their words sometimes husky with emotion, residents of Utah coal country told a state panel on Tuesday that they feared the mines would be overwhelmed by new safety rules after a fatal accident last month.
“We’ve got the right laws in place right now that I think can take care of safety,” Brad Timothy, a longtime miner, said.
Mr. Timothy and 30 others gathered at the Huntington Elementary School gymnasium for the second hearing of the new Mine Safety Commission.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. formed the panel to investigate the state’s role in mine safety after the fatal collapse at the Crandall Canyon Mine near here killed six miners and three rescue workers.
Mr. Huntsman and commission members have suggested that Utah should be more active in regulating its 13 coal mines. They are now overseen by just the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Miners at the hearing viewed the commission with suspicion, and panel members spent considerable time reassuring residents that the state was not bent on closing the mines.
“We are not going to make more rules,” said Mayor Hilary Gordon of Huntington, a member of the commission. “We want to keep the mining industry strong.”
Nearly two months after the Crandall Canyon collapse, the main street of this tiny town is quiet, no longer flooded with news media, government vehicles and makeshift memorials. The lone sign that something terrible once occurred is a poster at a gasoline station saying, “We will never forget.”
Without hesitation, just about all of those in attendance said more mine regulation would ruin their livelihoods.
“I don’t want to see their jobs go down the drain,” said Lee Cratsenburg, 59, who worked for 19 years in mines. “I think the safety regulations should be left.”
Ms. Cratsenburg’s brother Dale Black was one of the rescue workers killed at Crandall Canyon. She said if existing regulations had been met there, “I don’t think the lives would have been lost.”
A panel member, Dennis O’Dell, a mine safety official for the United Mine Workers of America, disputed the notion that the state did not have a role. He said that Utah should consider supplementing the federal inspections, that there was a national shortage of federal safety specialists and that the agency had fallen behind on inspections.
“A large number of mines are not getting the inspections,” Mr. O’Dell said. “In some cases, M.S.H.A.’s falling behind are affecting the health and safety of the miners. The state might be able to play some role to help.”
Gary D. Kofford, an Emery County commissioner, warned that any actions the commission took would affect the local economy.
“Let us do our jobs,” Mr. Kofford said. “Don’t shut any more mines down. Don’t interfere.”
Industry officials were also hesitant to endorse a separate state regulatory system, saying the federal agency already conducted frequent and aggressive inspections that kept mines safe.
“I don’t think anyone on this commission understands how many inspections M.S.H.A. does,” said Ray Bridge, a safety manager for the Dugout Canyon Mine near Price. “In our opinion, they do a very thorough job.”
Mr. Bridge said his mine was subject to nearly constant inspections that looked into all aspects of the mine, including safety, noise levels and electrical equipment. He said a total of 245 federal inspectors had inspected Dugout Canyon throughout this year.
The prevailing sentiment was that nothing could have prevented the Crandall Canyon disaster and that any state intervention might worsen problems.
“This event was an anomaly and could not have been predicted,” said Joe Fielder, a longtime miner involved in the Crandall Canyon rescue effort. “This disaster was not the result of poor training or improper mine procedures.”
On a break from the hearing, Mr. O’Dell wandered over to a corner of the gymnasium. A coal miner, he conceded that he was frustrated with the sense that the local mines were in jeopardy and called accusations that the mines were already overregulated preposterous.
“The most precious resource in the mines,” he told the panel, “is the miner, not the coal.”