Friday, September 28, 2007

Utah Mine Country, After Disaster

Utah Mine Country, After Disaster,
Tells Panel It Fears Overregulation

With quiet voices, theirwords sometimes husky with emotion, residents of Utahcoal country told a state panel on Tuesday that theyfeared the mines would be overwhelmed by new safetyrules after a fatal accident last month."We've got the right laws in place right now that Ithink can take care of safety," Brad Timothy, alongtime miner, said.Mr. Timothy and 30 others gathered at the HuntingtonElementary School gymnasium for the second hearing ofthe new Mine Safety Commission.Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. formed the panel to investigatethe state's role in mine safety after the fatalcollapse at the Crandall Canyon Mine near here killedsix miners and three rescue workers.Mr. Huntsman and commission members have suggestedthat Utah should be more active in regulating its 13coal mines. They are now overseen by just the FederalMine Safety and Health Administration.Miners at the hearing viewed the commission withsuspicion, and panel members spent considerable timereassuring residents that the state was not bent onclosing the mines."We are not going to make more rules," said MayorHilary Gordon of Huntington, a member of thecommission. "We want to keep the mining industrystrong."Nearly two months after the Crandall Canyon collapse,the main street of this tiny town is quiet, no longerflooded with news media, government vehicles andmakeshift memorials. The lone sign that somethingterrible once occurred is a poster at a gasolinestation saying, "We will never forget."Without hesitation, just about all of those inattendance said more mine regulation would ruin theirlivelihoods."I don't want to see their jobs go down the drain,"said Lee Cratsenburg, 59, who worked for 19 years inmines. "I think the safety regulations should beleft."Ms. Cratsenburg' s brother Dale Black was one of therescue workers killed at Crandall Canyon. She said ifexisting regulations had been met there, "I don'tthink the lives would have been lost."A panel member, Dennis O'Dell, a mine safety officialfor the United Mine Workers of America, disputed thenotion that the state did not have a role. He saidthat Utah should consider supplementing the federalinspections, that there was a national shortage offederal safety specialists and that the agency hadfallen behind on inspections."A large number of mines are not getting theinspections, " Mr. O'Dell said. "In some cases,M.S.H.A.'s falling behind are affecting the health andsafety of the miners. The state might be able to playsome role to help."Gary D. Kofford, an Emery County commissioner, warnedthat any actions the commission took would affect thelocal economy."Let us do our jobs," Mr. Kofford said. "Don't shutany more mines down. Don't interfere."Industry officials were also hesitant to endorse aseparate state regulatory system, saying the federalagency already conducted frequent and aggressiveinspections that kept mines safe."I don't think anyone on this commission understandshow many inspections M.S.H.A. does," said Ray Bridge,a safety manager for the Dugout Canyon Mine nearPrice. "In our opinion, they do a very thorough job."Mr. Bridge said his mine was subject to nearlyconstant inspections that looked into all aspects ofthe mine, including safety, noise levels andelectrical equipment. He said a total of 245 federalinspectors had inspected Dugout Canyon throughout thisyear.The prevailing sentiment was that nothing could haveprevented the Crandall Canyon disaster and that anystate intervention might worsen problems."This event was an anomaly and could not have beenpredicted," said Joe Fielder, a longtime minerinvolved in the Crandall Canyon rescue effort. "Thisdisaster was not the result of poor training orimproper mine procedures."On a break from the hearing, Mr. O'Dell wandered overto a corner of the gymnasium. A coal miner, heconceded that he was frustrated with the sense thatthe local mines were in jeopardy and calledaccusations that the mines were already overregulatedpreposterous."The most precious resource in the mines," he told thepanel, "is the miner, not the coal."