Funding a top concern for mine-training base
By Mike Gorrell
The Salt Lake Tribune
October 8, 2007
PRICE CANYON - Across a two-lane highway from the Western Energy Training Center is a hardscrabble cemetery where weathered headstones mark the graves of many of the 1924 Castle Gate coal mine disaster's 172 victims.
Traces of soot also are visible here and there on training center buildings, a remnant of the dense smoke that an underground fire belched out of the Willow Creek mine after a series of methane explosions killed two coal miners and injured eight others in the summer of 2000.
For the most part, however, those buildings have been scrubbed clean. With the mine's permanent closure, company surface offices have been transformed into a training and research facility for the energy industry as a whole.
But the center's coal-mining sector seems likely to receive additional emphasis now because of August's Crandall Canyon disaster, which killed nine and wounded six.
Initial meetings of a gubernatorial commission examining what role the state should play in future mine-safety efforts have zeroed in on the need for more training in an industry scrambling to replace an aging work force with a new generation of technically oriented employees.
All the Western Energy Training Center needs to deliver that training is money.
Robert Topping, hired a year ago as program director at WETC (pronounced wee-tech) is overseeing a $1.9 million budget for the fiscal year that began last Monday.
The Legislature is providing $200,000 of that through the College of Eastern Utah in Price, but the rest must come from federal and state grants and fees charged to training recipients. Topping said he has 11 grant requests out now and a 12th in the works.
But to Price businessman Jerry Carlson, who recruits miners for operators in five Intermountain states, relying on annual grants is not the way to assure that the center can meet the existing training needs of the energy industry, let alone adding whatever extra coal-mining training is required in the aftermath of Crandall Canyon.
"We need continuous funding to look out three to four years, not just six months," said Carlson, a CEU trustee and also a prominent figure in the Southeastern Utah Energy Producers Association, which includes mining, oil and gas, trucking and infrastructure-development companies.
A steady source of income from the state would solve the problem, he said.
Carlson, Topping and CEU administrators Dale Evans and Miles Nelson all told the Utah Mine Safety Commission last week that WETC is the vehicle for meeting work force training needs because it pulls together industry, academia and government regulators.
This unification of slightly different interests has been challenging. But it is picking up steam, aided by the Legislature's decision last spring to merge the industry-oriented Southeast Applied Technology College into CEU.
The two Price-based colleges had been working on parallel tracks, with the applied technology college handling MSHA's training grants while CEU provided other training for new miners, mine rescue teams and people seeking advanced certification as electricians or foremen.
Their programs now will be commingled, with CEU moving its mining department offices to WETC's buildings. Energy-related companies have paid to adapt rooms in the training center, which was bought and cleaned up with state funds. Energy companies also have donated used equipment to the center.
And Topping is lobbying the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, to open offices in WETC so that federal regulators can observe training programs first-hand to ensure they comply with codes.
"All of these groups have to be sitting at the table to develop curriculum and standards," he said.
But the energetic Topping also has some definite ideas about the best directions to go.
"Utah will never be known for its energy production. Utah will be known for its energy innovation," he said. "We hope to shift learning from knowing to doing. You have to have people hands-on, doing it, to know how regulations affect the real world."
Topping already has secured one grant that will convert a large WETC room into a simulated power plant control center. This simulator should be up and running by next May, he said, in time to help start training people to operate facilities, such as Rocky Mountain Power's three power plants in Emery and Carbon counties.
All three plants will face personnel challenges in coming years as the current crop of managers and workers start retiring, Topping said.
He hopes to acquire additional simulation programs that will enable WETC to train people to troubleshoot digital control systems for drilling oil and gas wells, for instance. And for the mining industry, he anticipates buying simulators that would allow incoming and experienced miners to don hard hats equipped with screens that would teach them to operate shuttle cars, continuous mining machines, roof bolters, bulldozers or haul trucks in real-world type of situations.
"We can program in conditions that [equipment] operators will have to deal with," Topping said, predicting this training also could open the industry to more women by "showing that some jobs are really about manipulation of knowledge rather than lifting and carrying."
Topping is intent on developing a certified mine safety professional program so retirees with a lifetime of knowledge about real-world conditions can become "effective adult educators."
In addition, he envisions research projects being conducted on site that could help modernize the Castle Gate power plant, develop a synthetic biodiesel plant or processes for using by-product gases to generate electricity.
Already, a pilot project spearheaded by Price-based Terra Systems has been processing fine coal waste materials into briquets of metallurgical grade coke.
"We're making premium product out of waste," said Terra Systems founder Clayton Timothy, noting that college students who worked on the pilot plant have moved quickly into industry jobs after completing their education.
That is just one example of how WETC can help meet work-force needs, Topping said, contending safety training will benefit companies and trainees in similar ways.
And, he added, "when we see the cemetery across the road, we see our responsibility in this area."