Union Testifies Crandall Canyon Mine Was Unsafe

Worker safety concerns should have kept MSHA from accepting a plan for retreat mining at the Crandall Canyon Mine, a union official said Sept. 5 at a Capitol Hill hearing.

According to United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) President Cecil Roberts, who testified at a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, there were multiple warning signs that should have kept the agency from accepting the mining plan proposed by Murray Energy Corp. Crandall Canyon's previous mine operator Andalex Resources, which sold the mine to Murray Energy – had consciously decided not to engage in retreat mining as the only coal left in the mine was supporting the barriers and pillars necessary to hold up the roof of the mine's main entrance and egress points.

According to Roberts, this was information that MSHA should have known. The agency also should have known that the mine had suffered a “bump," an explosion of coal walls due to pressure exerted by the big mountain above, in March 2007, which occurred only a couple of hundred of feet away from where the six miners are said to be trapped.

“The mining plan should not have been submitted and should not have been approved,” Roberts said, noting that it took the agency only 7 days to approve the plan. “Make no mistake about it, this disaster was not an act of God, but an act of man. It was preventable.”

MSHA: What Bump?

MSHA Administrator Richard Stickler defended his agency at the hearing, claiming that MSHA officials, upon inspection of Crandall Canyon Mine before approving the plan, required installation of additional roof supports for retreat mining. He also said that the company never included information about the bump in the mine plan.

“MSHA was not notified about this bump or the magnitude of the bump when it occurred,” Stickler told members of the Senate committee.

Stickler added that the agency will investigate whether Murray Energy was required by law to report the bump to MSHA as part of its mining plan.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., who criticized the agency throughout the hearing, wasn't satisfied with Stickler's response.

“MSHA is clearly not paying adequate attention to these bumps that had catastrophic results,” Specter stated. “How could MSHA approve mining to go on where a bump had occurred months earlier [and] 915 feet away? How could MSHA pursue rescue efforts with all these bumps? Isn't there just a blatant failure by MSHA to recognize the problems caused by these bumps?”

Despite New Law, Mine Safety Hearings Continue

The Sept. 5 hearing was the first of a series of hearings to examine the Crandall Canyon Mine incident and to determine if there should be changes made to the Mine Improvement New Emergency Response (MINER) Act, which was signed after the mine tragedies at the Sago and Aracoma mines brought newfound attention to the issue of mine safety.

Subcommittee chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, expressed frustration that mine safety in the United States continues to be a problem and said MSHA still hasn't responded as effectively as it should have as the regulatory arm that oversees mine safety.

“Why do we continue to have this hearings?” Harkin asked, noting, "It's been more than 18 months since the hearing after the Sago disaster in West Virgina."

Noticeably absent from the hearing was Robert Murray, the mine's co-owner, who was a prominent figure in the news media during the initial aftermath of the Aug. 6 collapse. Specter said he wasn't satisfied with Murray's excuse for not attending.

“First he said he was too busy but now he says he's too sick,” Specter said. “I'm personally convinced that we need and will issue a subpoena here.”

Stickler also was criticized by members of the committee for not exerting enough control over Murray when the media arrived to cover the incident. Murray contradicted MSHA over the cause of the mine collapse and took members of the media inside the unstable mine. Stickler said he couldn't control the fact that the media focused solely on what Murray said and that no member of the news media was in harm's way when touring the mine, despite reports from members of the media that they felt movement in the mine during their tour.

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