Fed mine-safety boss calls for better standards for deep coal operations
The Salt Lake Tribune
October 12, 2007
the aftermath of the Crandall Canyon mine disaster, the head of the federal mine-safety agency said Thursday that he would like to see better standards to gauge the potential risk of mining deep coal seams, like those common in Utah, and a policy to encourage the sharing of mine safety information.
Assistant Secretary of Labor Richard Stickler said he would like to see the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) moving toward targets for mine stability, although it's too soon to set those standards.
"I don't think we know enough to put the parameters on it, but I think that's where I'd like to see us head," Stickler said.
In his wide-ranging interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Stickler also said he is working on a policy to encourage the sharing of information on mine safety, assured MSHA would hold itself accountable for any shortcomings and supported a state role in mine inspections.
Stickler would not discuss the adequacy of MSHA's review of the Crandall Canyon mine plan or the engineering work behind the mine's design, saying those are issues that need to be addressed by the agency's accident investigation.
He said he was shaken by the Aug. 6 collapse that entombed six miners, and a subsequent cave-in on Aug. 16 that killed three rescuers. It is easy to say, in hindsight, that the rescuers should not have been in the mine, he said, but experts told MSHA the safety precautions would protect the people.
"Anyone who was there and part of that and wasn't traumatized in some way, I don't know, they're a lot stronger than I am," he said.
Stickler was in Salt Lake City to meet with investigators and the families of the victims of the Crandall Canyon collapse.
While the investigation is ongoing, Stickler said he has asked MSHA's technical experts to begin looking for common threads in mines that are prone to "bumps" - a frequent phenomenon in Utah's deep coal mines that occurs when the pressure from the mountain bearing down overwhelms the coal pillars supporting the mine, jolting the structure and shooting coal from the walls.
"There's no engineering methods to guarantee there won't be mountain bumps tomorrow or the next day," Stickler said. "There are some guidelines you can put in that will reduce the risk, and that's what I hope, that we'd move in the direction of reducing the risk."
He said he would eventually like to see data crunched on all working mines, so MSHA can develop guidelines for the approval of mines. Now, he said, designing coal mines is "a little bit of science, but you've got a lot of art," allowing for debate over whether a specific plan would work.
"At some point in time, you've got to say, look folks, the arguing is over. You pick something that gives you a high enough margin of safety and you mandate it. That may be one way to deal with it."
Stickler said MSHA is crafting a formal agreement to encourage the sharing of safety information with the Bureau of Land Management.
A BLM inspector who was in Crandall Canyon months before the collapse raised questions about the safety of mining being done, but the information never got to MSHA. At a hearing last week, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., likened the communication breakdown to the failure of intelligence agencies to share information prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Stickler said the release of an engineering study of the mine last week was "unfortunate," because the engineering firm that designed the mine subsequently said it would not participate in the mine collapse investigation. Agapito Associates, the engineering firm, said Thursday it only sought to reschedule its meeting with MSHA investigators and would cooperate with investigators. The former director of coal mine safety in Pennsylvania, Stickler said having state inspectors working in Utah coal mines could improve safety. A Utah Mine Safety Commission, appointed by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., is reviewing whether the state should take a more active role in regulating mines in the future.
"The answer to the question is pretty obvious: Two eyes are better than one, two people checking is better than one, two agencies is better than one," Stickler said.