Mine Tragedy in Utah

The Aug. 6 collapse at the Crandall Canyon mine in Emory County, Utah that left six miners trapped 1,500 feet below ground, as well as a second cave-in almost 2 weeks later that left three rescue workers dead, has unleashed a series of events that once again has put the mine industry and MSHA under scrutiny.

It still is unclear as to what triggered the cave-in. Government seismologists have claimed the seismic event recorded by instruments around the time of the collapse appeared to be the cave-in itself, not an earthquake. Robert Murray, chairman of Murray Energy Corp., a co-owner of the Crandall Canyon mine, insisted that an earthquake caused the mine collapse.

Rescue efforts started almost immediately following the collapse, but tragedy struck the mine again, when another cave-in killed three mine rescuers — one of them a MSHA inspector — and injured six others as they were attempting to tunnel through rubble and debris to reach the men.

According to MSHA, a significant “bounce” — a shift in pressure that shoots rock from the walls with great force — killed the rescuers.

As of this writing, a sixth hole is being drilled into the mountain in a last-ditch attempt to find the miners. The hole, which Murray says will be the last one, is being drilled in an area where the miners were last believed to have worked. Previous attempts to contact the trapped miners have been unsuccessful and have failed to show signs of life.

This latest mine tragedy has prompted labor leaders and legislators to question whether the state of mine safety in the United States has improved since passage of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act of 2006, which was signed following the Sago and Alma Mine disasters in West Virginia.

In a letter sent to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, requested that the Labor Department turn over any documents relating to the Crandall Canyon mine. His request includes any inspections of the site, petitions for changes in mining practices and notes and correspondence between federal officials and the various companies associated with the Utah mine operator.

“The loss of life at the mine, and the devastating emotional toll on families of the victims, underscore the urgent need for a thorough examination of our federal system of mine safety,” Kennedy said in the letter, noting it was his “duty” to investigate the causes of the tragedy and its aftermath to prevent future tragedies.

In addition, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education announced that on Sept. 5 it will hold a hearing to investigate what happened at Crandall Canyon that caused the mine's collapse.

Among those invited to testify are MSHA head Richard Stickler, Robert Murray and Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, which is representing the families in the investigation.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who heads the subcommittee, said he held hearings after the fatal Sago and Alma mine tragedies in West Virginia to figure out what went wrong to try to avoid future disasters.

“And here we are again after yet another coal mine tragedy,” he said. “My father mined coal in Iowa for 23 years so my heart goes out to the families of these victims as does my commitment to preventing another needless loss of life.”

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