Legislators Seek Investigation into Utah Mine Disaster

The mine tragedy in Utah is prompting legislators to call for further investigations and hearings to determine what went wrong at the Crandall Canyon mine and to question if 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.

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 it will be holding a hearing to investigate what happened at Crandall Canyon that lead to the mine's collapse on Sept. 5.

Among those invited to testify are MSHA head Richard Stickler; Robert E. Murray, chief executive of Murray Energy, a co-owner of the mine; 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.”

Utah Governor Forms Mine Safety Commission

Local politicians also are investigating the Crandall Canyon mine disaster and the role the state of Utah played leading up to the incident as well as in the rescue, recovery and community support processes. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman announced that a newly formed mine safety panel headed by Scott Matheson, former dean of the University of Utah Law School and former U.S. attorney, would help determine what the state's role should be in protecting coal miners.

"When looking to appoint the best person in the nation to chair this important commission, I thought of no one better suited for this task than Scott," Huntsman said. "He has the right background, methodical approach to problem-solving and leadership necessary to lead this important commission."

Matheson will be joined on the volunteer commission by state and local politicians, union and industry officials such as Dennis O'Dell, safety and health director of the United Mine Workers of America, as well as former Utah senator Jake Garn, a Republican.

Murray's Effectiveness Questioned

According to media reports, Huntsman has been critical of the way Murray handled the rescue efforts and investigation at Crandall Canyon. Specifically, he faulted Murray for his treatment of the families in private, for speaking out too much in public and for not using all available technology to try and rescue and recover the miners.

Huntsman asked the newly formed mine safety panel to make policy recommendations on how the state of Utah should promote mine safety, including legislative changes at the state and federal levels. The panel also will seek expert assistance through recruitment of a volunteer technical advisory committee.

According to Huntsman, the panel is expected to offer a preliminary report sometime this fall. He emphasized that it will not be tasked with investigating the cause of the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster or determine any fault for its occurrence.

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