Feds relied on grad student for review of controversial mining method
Salt Lake Tribune -
October 2, 2007
WASHINGTON - Federal mine regulators relied on a graduate student to do the technical review for proposed retreat mining in the Crandall Canyon mine, the head of coal mine safety told a Senate committee today.
The mine's operators, UtahAmerican Energy Inc., had submitted a proposal in May to do retreat mining in Crandall Canyon, and provided a technical analysis from its engineering consultant, Agapito Associates Inc., which said it could be done safely.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration relied on the technical review of an engineering graduate student when it approved the mining on June 15, Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's administrator for coal mine safety, told senators.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., seemed surprised by the disclosure. Stricklin said that is not normally the case, but was in this instance.
A report by the National Institutes on Occupational Safety and Health called into question the computer modeling done by Agapito to back up the proposed mine plan. The NIOSH report said that its own computer modeling showed that it would be reasonable to expect problems mining in Crandall Canyon because of the pressure created by the depth of the mine.
Asked why MSHA didn't recognize the problems in Agapito's technical analysis, Stricklin said that is something the agency's investigation will have to look at.
Six miners - Kerry Allred, Don Erickson, Luis Hernandez, Juan Carlos Payan, Brandon Phillips, Manuel Sanchez - were killed Aug. 6 after the intense pressures bearing down on the underground mine caused a bump or bounce, where coal exploded from the pillars and a massive cave-in, entombing the men.
Ten days later, another bounce occurred, trapping miners under heaps of coal. Three died and six others were injured.
A similar bump in March had forced the company to halt mining in an area about 900 feet to the north of where the August disaster occurred. Stricklin said MSHA was not officially informed of the March bump.
Had the agency been notified, there would have been additional scrutiny of the proposed mining in the south barrier.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., questioned why the Bureau of Land Management knew of the problems in the mine, but the information was not shared with MSHA. Kennedy likened it to the failure of federal intelligence agencies to coordinate information prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Family members of the trapped miners were on hand for the hearing and will testify before a House committee tomorrow.
Also Tuesday, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he was working with the Labor Department to ensure that the Utah Mine Safety Commission, appointed by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to review what could be done to prevent future accidents, gets the information it needs from MSHA's investigation team. Thus far, MSHA has refused to provide information to the Utah commission.