August 30, 2007 The Pump Handle 11Comment

by Celeste Monforton 

Max Follmer of The Huffington Post reports that MSHA has rebuffed a request from the Crandall Canyon families to designate the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) to serve as their representative during MSHA’s formal accident investigation. 

“In a statement e-mailed to The Huffington Post, MSHA spokesman Dirk Fillpot defended the agency’s actions, saying federal officials have spent ‘untold hours’ briefing the families of the missing miners.  We are disappointed that the UMWA is trying to use a law enforcement investigation for its own purposes.”

Hmmm.  Where have I heard this before? 

Early on in the disaster, when the TV cameras couldn’t get enough of the Crandall Canyon operator, Mr. Bob Murray lambasted the miners’ union, along with Davitt McAteer and Tony Oppegard, and accussed them of trying to organize workers at the mine. (here)   Now, MSHA’s spokesman Dirk Fillpot is using Murray’s script??   Could things get any worse for miners’ safety in this country?

The Huffington Post piece explains that: 

“‘All six of the families had signed documents designating the union as their representative in the investigation,’ UMWA spokesman Phil Smith said.  MSHA told the union’s attorneys on Monday that the agency would not heed the request.  ‘MSHA requires that miners sign these papers, but the miners in question were unable because the are trapped inside the mine.'”

The Mine Act of 1977 gives every miner the right to designate a representative (Section 103) who then is given an official role in MSHA inspections and investigations.  The right is guaranteed whether or not miners belong to a formal labor organization, like the UMWA, or simply designate a co-worker or other person for the duty. 

The procedure is simple.  Put in writing the following statement:

“We the undersigned, are miners employed by XYZ coal company, whose address is 123 Street in Mining Town, USA.  We designate Alice Hamilton as our representative of miners pursuant to 30 C.F.R. 40.3(a)(3).  Please do (or do not) withhold our names from the mine operator.”

The letter must be dated and signed by at least two workers employed at the mine.  Once the letter is received by MSHA and the agency confirms that the miners are employed at the mine, the miners’ representative becomes official.*

Huffington‘s Max Follner goes on to explain:

“In the aftermath of the Sago tragedy in 2006, the owner of that mine sought to block the union’s access to the site, even though a group of miners appointed the UMWA as their representative. MSHA attorneys obtained a court order that compelled the mine owner to allow union officials onto the property (and here). The distinction being drawn in the Crandall Canyon situation is that the miners’ families — rather than the miners themselves — signed the documents requesting the union’s participation.”

He reports that MSHA spokesman Fillpot wrote:

“The Mine Safety and Health Act is clear on who can seek representation in these investigations.”

Obviously, Mr. Fillpot believes it is not family members of the trapped miners.  The Mine Act is indeed clear that miners have the right to designate a representative.  But, because these six trapped miners cannot speak for themselves, MSHA should show some compassion and allow the widows, daughters and sons to speak on their lost miners’ behalf.  The situation may be unprecedented, but tell me, what is the harm? 

Knowing MSHA, as I do, I’m sure the Solicitor of Labor’s office played a key role in deciding how the Mine Act should be interpreted.  Rather than erring on the side of protecting miners’ rights, they trip over themselves in their abundance of legal caution.  They play out the legal what-ifs and conclude that if they grant the widows their request for the UMWA to serve as the miners’ representative, Big-Bad Bob Murray will take them to court.  Oh, that’s so very scary.  Pleese. 

In their minds, Murray Energy will claim that the Mine Act only allows untrapped (or they may be so callous as to say “non-deceased miners) to designate a representative.  I say: so what!  Let the company lawyers make that argument if they want.  Callous bastards.

Again, I say: So what if Murray Energy and Utah America takes MSHA to court to argue something so unsympathetic?  Won’t that just reinforce the bad image of a heartless coal mine operator?  And, what’s the worst that could happen?  The company prevails?  Think about that.  They’d lose even more respect from the public if they actually tried to halt grieving widows from having an official representative sit in on MSHA’s  investigation.

For me, it’s a complete no-brainer for MSHA no matter how you slice it.  From the perspective of showing compassion for the families, or legal strategy, or just the cold-hard politics of the matter.  But on all counts (and as has been my experience over the years trying to interpret the Bush Administration’s decisions) I’m left here scratching my head.


*If the miners indicate in their letter that they do NOT want the mine operator to learn their names, MSHA inspectors will be as discrete as possible to confirm that the miners are employed at the mine.  For example, they can request a complete payroll list from the mine and look for the miners’ names on the roster.

Celeste Monforton, MPH was a career federal employee who worked in MSHA’s Assistant Secretary’s office from 1996-2001, and at OSHA from 1991-1995.  When she’s not working for the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP), she’s supposed to be writing her doctoral dissertation.

11 thoughts on “No joke: MSHA Spokesman Parrots Bob Murray

  1. Celeste Monforton……she’s supposed to be writing her doctoral dissertation.
    This made me LOL for real; I know a couple of people like this.

    Knowing MSHA, as I do, I’m sure the Solicitor of Labor’s office played a key role in deciding how the Mine Act should be interpreted. Rather than erring on the side of protecting miners’ rights, they trip over themselves in their abundance of legal caution. They play out the legal what-ifs and conclude that if they grant the widows their request for the UMWA to serve as the miners’ representative, Big-Bad Bob Murray will take them to court. Oh, that’s so very scary. Pleese.

    Is that IT?! I ran across this in the SLC Tribune and this sentence here, “He referenced federal regulations that specify procedures for miners to identify their representatives, but that does not include provisions for family members to do so.

    Okay, then you write: “The letter must be dated and signed by at least two workers employed at the mine. Once the letter is received by MSHA and the agency confirms that the miners are employed at the mine, the miners’ representative becomes official.”

    These ‘two workers employed at the mine’ – can it be any miner or specifically one of the trapped miners?

    As for this statement in Mr. Fillpot’s statement (SLC Tribune again), [” MSHA has spent untold hours briefing the families of the missing miners on every detail of the rescue activities and MSHA will keep them apprised of the progress of our investigation.”] THAT has absolutely nothing to do with the matter in question. So what? So MSHA has spent time apprising the families of progress? Is this some kind of ridiculous trade-off?

  2. Hi Leftistmoon,

    The Mine Act and the implementing regulations say a miners rep means: “any person or organization which represents two or more miners at a coal or other mine for the purposes of the Act.” (30 CFR Part 40). The Act and regulations refer to a “miner” making the designation of a miners’ rep, but is silent on whether a family member could do this on behalf of the miners. My point is that the Mine Act doesn’t say it can’t be a family member making this designation, so why doesn’t MSHA err on the side of miners’ rights and allow the families to make this designation. I think they don’t want to because they think (and probably correctly) that they will get sued by Murray Energy (just like ICG did in the Sago case) and argue that a family member doesn’t have this right under the Mine Act. I say, let them sue and see how it turns out, rather than just nipping the thing in the bud (which is a move that favors the operator, and then the operator doesn’t have to be the bad guy in this instance.)

    You are right, right on when you say that MSHA’s assertion that they’ve spent untold hours briefing the families has ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with the matter. Yes! a ludicrious suggestion that it is a trade-off. Phoo-ey.

  3. As far as i’m conserned the familys have very few rights as it is and If I had to have someone set on every single door step and office desk untill it was honored! There is no one person who will fight harder to get to the truth than a family memeber or loved one.
    So I agree with Celeste BRING IT ON!

  4. You get what the people in charge want. The United Mine Workers are a focused organization with a great record in making mines safer for those working underground. I was contacted and interviewed by a paper in Utah about this unfortunate and tragic accident. When I mentioned the UMW the interview was terminated by the reporter within about 30 seconds. This should be looked at very closely at a national level.

  5. Listen to Tammy! She knows first hand the fight that family members have to go through to get information from the agencies responsible for investigating workplace fatalities.

  6. I was contacted and interviewed by a paper in Utah about this unfortunate and tragic accident.

    Celeste –
    I have no idea. I’m hazarding a guess that within the SLC market, I’d lay $$$$ down it would be the ‘Deseret Morning News.’ Comments have been scrubbed from their website on stories covering Crandall Canyon, Bob Murray, et. al., that were obviously negative.

  7. Last I heard the mine had laid off all workers. There are a lot of places in West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and the West that are run this way. The idea that unions were optional has been a long running concept for some power players, as has the idea that government is not capable of actually helping the people. This really stated with Reagan and has been going full steam. Even the Democratic majority backed away from FDR’s concept of a proactive, central, and strong federal government.

  8. Perhaps if Ms. Monforton should spend more time working on her dissertation instead of continuing to blast MSHA and the many hard-working folks employed by this agency

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