On Aug. 6, a major coal “bump” in the Crandall Canyon mine in Emery County, Utah, resulted in the deaths of six miners. The incident occurred during a risky retreat mining operation, when miners work to remove pillars of coal that previously supported the mine roof. Pressure can fracture pillars and forcefully eject coal into passageways – otherwise known as a “bump.” Ten days after the initial fatal incident, three rescuers were killed and six others injured in a second bump.
MSHA approved a roof control plan, five revisions and 11 site-specific amendments in the 5 years leading up to the Aug. 6 incident. The OIG report assessed MSHA’s development procedures and suggested the agency failed to protect miners by exercising little or no oversight.
“MSHA could not show that it did everything appropriate to ensure the Crandall Canyon roof control plan was sufficient to protect miners,” the report read. “MSHA did not have a rigorous, transparent review and approval process for roof control plans consisting of explicit criteria and plan evaluation factors, appropriate documentation, and active oversight and supervision by headquarters and District 9 management.”
Findings and Recommendations
The report also stated MSHA did not:
- Demonstrate it exercised due diligence or made the right decision in approving the plan.
- Provide sufficient documentation to support its review and approval of the plan.
- Ensure an adequate standard operating procedure for roof control plan review and approval.
- Provide policy guidance and regulation for defining and using roof control plan evaluation criteria.
- Require or consider potentially relevant information as part of the roof control plan review.
- Show the process was free from undue influence from the mine operator.
- Ensure the approved plans were properly implemented.
- Continue to provide protections as conditions in the mine changed.
To prevent more tragedies in the future, OIG recommended that MSHA develop rigorous, standard and transparent process for roof control plan implementation and approval as well as establish criteria to assess the quality of the proposed plans and any potential safety risks. In addition, OIG asked that MSHA clarify protocol involving non-rescue activities and non-rescue personnel during rescue operations.
MSHA: “Negligent” is Misleading
In a response to the OIG report, MSHA Assistant Secretary Richard Stickler indicated that MSHA largely concurs with the findings and already was in the process of implementing some of the recommendations. He disagreed, however, with the term “negligent” used to describe the agency’s procedures.
“MSHA can – and will – make changes to its standard operating procedures to improve its effectiveness, but it is misleading to the public to characterize the agency’s performance as ‘negligent’ based on the evidentiary record cited in the report,” he wrote.
“The report points to several shortcomings in MSHA’s documentation of its roof control approval process – shortcomings the agency has committed to address – and in certain cases identifies missed opportunities to proactively enhance safety protections,” he added, “but the report does not provide evidence that MSHA negligently breached its duty to protect miners through its administration of the Mine Act.”
Stickler also responded to the report’s suggestion that MSHA may have been subjected to “undue influence” from the mine operator. He pointed out that no evidence supports this implication.
“Indeed, while the report fairly concludes that there was inadequate documentation of the Crandall Canyon roof control plan approval process, the lack of documentation does not by itself prove that MSHA was unduly influenced,” he wrote.
The MSHA response also cited instances in which the report apparently omitted information that could contradict its findings. Examples of the missing information include:
- The roof control supervisor who reviewed the plan was a professional engineer with years of experience as the chief of MSHA’s former technical support center in Denver.
- Experts at NIOSH and the University of Utah agreed “historical information of seismic activity has little predictive value with respect to future activity.”
- MSHA’s criteria for approving a roof control plan included consultation with the Bureau of Land Management.
OIG, however, added that its findings and recommendations remain unchanged.
Miller: MSHA Process “Deeply Flawed”
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, issued a statement regarding the OIG report, saying it “highlights the fact that miners performing retreat mining in this country remain at serious risk because of MSHA’s deeply flawed process for reviewing and approving retreat mining plans.”
He also stressed that the Supplementary Mine Improvement and Emergency Response (S-MINER) Act, approved by the House in January, was necessary as it requires MSHA to strengthen its procedures in reviewing retreat mining plans and observe retreat mining operations once they are in place.
Miller questioned MSHA’s leadership and its role in allowing media representatives and family members to descend into the Crandall Canyon mine during rescue efforts.
“Members of the news media – who apparently had ‘fast and not so good’ safety training – and family members of trapped miners were allowed into the mine despite objections from other MSHA officials,” he stated. “Assistant Secretary Stickler should better explain that decision, which may have put people’s lives at risk unnecessarily.”
To read the full report, including MSHA’s response, go to http://www.oig.dol.gov/public/reports/oa/2008/05-08-003-06-001.pdf.