August 7, 2007 The Pump Handle 3Comment

More than 1,900 miles separate the Sago Baptist Church in Buckhannon, WV and the Emery County Senior Citizens Center in Huntington, UT.  But the cavalcade of feelings from fear and hope, to uncertainty and despair is something only those who’ve been in their shoes can understand.  In January 2006, it was the families of 12 trapped WV miners who were waiting and praying; today it is six families at a Utah community center.  The families in Buckhannon wanted 12 miracles, but there was only one: Mr. Randall McCloy.  If we hear a joyful announcement “They’re Alive,” I’ve no doubt that bells at the Sago Baptist church will ring in celebration and solidarity.  

Meanwhile, what have the last two days demonstrated about lessons learned from the Sago disaster?

One of my first recollections about what transpired during the mine rescue activities at the Sago mine was absence of MSHA during the press briefings.  All of the information provided to the public about the explosion and the attempts to rescue the miners was provided by officials from International Coal Group’s Wolf Run Mining Company.  I later learned from the Sago families that the same thing occurred with respect to the briefings they received—information did not come from MSHA, but was provided by the mining company.

I have no information about what is happening currently for the Crandall miners’ families, but I’ve witnessed something eerily familiar with respect to information given to the press (for the public.)   By 6:00 pm today, MSHA had only issued two (very brief) written statements: a 128-word posting on its homepage at 3:30 pm (EST) on Monday 8/6, and a 58-word posting today at  9:30 am (EST).    I’ve heard from at least three journalists who report that their calls to MSHA are answered by voice mail boxes which are full and unable to accept new messages.   I don’t think that this is the kind of improvement that Congress had in mind when it passed the 2006 MINER Act, and instructed MSHA to

“serve as the primary communicator with the operator, miners’ families, the press and the public.” (See Section 7 MINER Act)

On the other hand, Mr. Robert Murray, the mine operator and head of Murray Energy Corporation has been conducting news conferences on the status of the mine rescue.  At today’s news conference, he indicated that he’d already conducted five previous news briefings.  As far as I could tell, it didn’t appear that the US Department of Labor or MSHA had organized any of its own news briefings, but instead, was simply latching onto press events organized by the mine operator.  

After the Sago disaster, the Secretary of Labor, Elaine Chao, issued something she called “Secretarial Order 17-2006” which directed her Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs to provide direction to MSHA on how to provide information to 

“the press, the public, the operator and miners’ families following a mine tragedy…”where multiple miners are trapped, unaccounted for, or multiple fatalities have occurred.” 

A protocol outlining this Secretarial Order was signed in December 2006.  According to the protocol, DOL’s public affairs office and MSHA

“should jointly prepare outlines that will serve to brief the press and the public on a scheduled basis.”

It’s a free country.   Mr. Murray can hold whatever press briefings he wants to share his perspective on the disaster.  My concern is that it seems to be, again like Sago, that the only source of information about the mine rescue is coming from events scheduled by the mine operator.  And, Mr. Murray has a bit of history for making choice remarks, especially when things are not going his way.  One of the most memorable statements attributed to the Murray Energy chief is:

“Mitch McConnell calls me one of the five finest men in America, and the last time I checked, he was sleeping with your boss”

when he allegedly tried to intimidate some MSHA inspectors and managers with his political connections to Senator McConnell’s wife, (Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao) because the inspectors were writing too many citations against his coal mines in West Virginia.  (Washington Monthly, Jan 2005)

At today’s news conference, Mr. Murray offered some new equally memorable quotes, chastizing reporters for seeking information from some of the nation’s leading mine safety experts:

“Quite obviously in reporting your stories, your producers and you journalists attempt to seek out individuals to obtain accurate commentary on the misfortune that has occurred here at the Crandall Canyon Mine, specifically, I’m referring to statements that you have sought out from Mr. J.Davitt McAteer, Tony Oppegard, Dennis O’Dell and Cecil Roberts, the last two of the United Mine Workers.  These individuals have given very false statements to the media and to America, for their own motives.  …I caution the media to very much question the veracity of these sources and their motivations.  …And I will cite to you and every one of these interviews all false reporting that we hear.”

I know there’s some very bad blood between the United Mine Worker and Mr. Murray  (Read UMWA’s “Promises Made, Promises Broken” here) but he’s just plain wrong when he suggests that they, especially Tony Oppegard and Davitt McAteer, have some unmentionable motivation for sharing their mine safety expertise with the public.   

Mr. Murray also continues to insist that this disaster was an act of God, specifically an earthquake:

“And I respectfull request that you report the truth that you have been told by the company and MSHA and me, and not the speculation from individuals who have no knowledge whatsoever of the earthquake, its after effects, and you have know knowledge of their motivations.”

Seriously, it’s the natural disaster defense.

“This was an earthquake.  Contrary to what others would like you to believe, it had nothing to do with our mining activity.  …Now it’s been stated and been reported by some of you, that the natural disater that occurred had something to do with something called retreat mining.  This statement is totally false.  And the damage in the mine was totally unrelated to any retreat mining.”

(Read a Confined Space classic “Miners gave their lives for last bit of coal” here.)

For any reporters out there who may be stuck on questions to ask Mr. Murray or MSHA, I’ll gladly donate these to your efforts:

  1. Do you engage in retreat mining at Crandall Canyon?  How do you know with such certainty that the disaster is unrelated to the retreat mining?
  2. Where the men working this hoot-owl shift equipped with electronic tracking devices, and if so, is this why you are so certain you know their exact location?
  3. What type of post-accident communication system (such as a secondary phone) was installed at the mine, as required by the MINER Act?
  4. When you refer to a “chamber” where the miners might be located, is this a refuge chamber installed in the mine?
  5. Is the siesmic equipment being transported to the mine by the Pentagon, the same equipment described in MSHA’s June 2007 internal review of the Sago disaster as “obsolete” and a device that has “never located a trapped miner.”  Or, is this new, improved equipment or a device on loan from another agency?

Celeste Monforton, MPH worked with Davitt McAteer and Tony Oppegard at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (1996-2001).  Next to St. Barbara, the patron saint of miners, these two men are some of the best watchdogs we have in the U.S. for the health and safety of miners.

3 thoughts on “Lessons from Sago at Crandall Canyon, or Not?

  1. In one of its few public statements on this mining disaster, MHSA’s public affairs person, Amy Louviere, plainly stated that Crandall Canyon Mine was engaged in retreat mining. In one of Bob Murray’s many on-camera temper tantrums, the bellowed and screeched that the mine was doing no such thing. Given Bob Murray’s long and successful history of having inspectors fired, transferred, and harassed by MSHA’s top leadership for writing citations at his mines, it is apparant that Ms. Louviere had better publicly recant her statement if she wants to remain employed.

  2. Those observations are spot on. Today’s (Wed) press conference was another circus. Murray’s interruption of Mr. Stickler’s comments so he could have a “show of hands” of media who wanted to tour the mine was ridiculous. It effectively ended the press conference.

  3. Mr. Addington,
    I’ve admired your work for many years, and proud to see that you read “The Pump Handle.”

    I only caught a portion of the press conference, but that which I saw was definitely an organized platform for Mr. Murray.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.