It’s been nearly four months since nine men were killed at theÂ Crandall Canyon mine in Emery County, Utah.Â Congressman George Miller (D-CA) held a hearing in early October on the disaster, but aÂ Senate hearing, scheduled for Dec 4, for which the mine operator Robert Murray had been subpeonaed, was cancelled.Â The Salt Lake Tribune’s Mike Gorrell and Robert Gherke reported recently on photographs taken inside the mine:
“If there was any question about the power of a mine bounce–created when the immense pressures on the coal pillars supporting the roof cause coal to blow out of the walls or fall from the roof—the photographs of the Crandall Canyon aftermath put them to rest.”
To me, the most amazing part of the story was that these photographs were taken by Murray Energy, not after theÂ August 2007Â disaster, but followingÂ a “bounce” in March 2007.Â Â This devastating event wasÂ not reported to MSHAÂ by the company, althoughÂ MSHA regulationsÂ (Part 50)Â require mine operators to do so.Â The regulation states plainly that
âa coal or rock outburst that causes withdrawl of miners or which disrupts regular mining activity for more than one hour” must be reported to MSHA within 10 working days.
The SLT’s Gherke notes that these same photographs were presented earlier in the month to family members of the deceased miners.Â Â He quotes an attorney representingÂ several families:
“I think the thing that they reacted to most is seeing the damage that had been done in March in the north barrier.Â We didn’t talk about it at any length, but I’m pretty sure the reaction to that is ‘Having seen that happen in the north barrier in March, what were they doing continuing with the same mine plan?'”
Â The SLT’sÂ Gorrell andÂ Gherke describe a public meeting on November 20, 2007Â of theÂ Utah Mine Safety Commission, (established byÂ Utah Governor HuntsmanÂ following the Crandall Canyon disaster) and MSHA’s investigation team.Â The federal investigators indicated attempting:
“two forays into the mine in mid-September, advancing to the scene of the implosion that killed the [three] rescue workers.Â Company officials accompanied them [MSHA] part of the way, but declined to go the last half-mile up the the working face.”
“And now the mine’s three entry tunnels have been sealed with cinder block walls…Â With limited on-site inspection possibilities, …[MSHA] has conducted formal, yet voluntary, interviews with 63 people knowledgeable about the mine and plans for it…
“U.S. Department of Labor attorney Ed ClairÂ [the Associate Solicitor of Labor–top lawyer on MSHA matters] said overtures have been made to talk with Robert Murray, the mine’s co-owner, but nothing definite has been set.” (emphasis added)
Overtures?Â Why is it that MSHA hasn’t yet interviewed theÂ guy—the mine operator—who was so quick to speak before TV cameras?Â Â It’s FOUR months later for goodness sake!Â I suspect that some individuals close to the investigation might argue “well,Â he was just theÂ mine owner.Â What did he really know aboutÂ the day-to-day operations at the mine?”Â
I’d suggest that Mr. Murray’s attitude about business economics and the meansÂ of production (including coalÂ miners themselves) could be extremely revealing aboutÂ how the Crandall Canyon mine was run.Â Remember what we learned about BP’s cost-cutting measures at the Texas City plant and its deadly consequences forÂ workers and the community?Â
If MSHA isÂ truly interested in the “root cause” of theÂ Crandall Canyon disaster (or anyÂ mine fatality for that matter) interviewing officials from along the whole management chain should beÂ a priority.Â So frequently we find that workplaceÂ fatalities are a deadly mix of organizational/ management factors AND physical hazards.Â Investigators need to hear from the management officials themselves to shed light onto a company’s philosophy andÂ itsÂ possible role inÂ harm to workers.
Apparently, MSHA also hasn’t yet interviewed anyone from Agapito Associates, the engineering firm which designed the Crandall Canyon mining plan after the destructive March 2007 “bounce.”Â MSHA indicates that the Agapito consultants have
“supplied investigators with…35,000 pages of material, 250 maps, 1,200 pictures and hours of video and audio-recordings.”
Data dumps fromÂ Agapito AssociatesÂ are fine, but sworn interviews about Murray Energy’s assignments to theÂ consultants are equally important.
Why doesn’t MSHA compel Robert Murray orÂ consultants from Agapito to testify as part of the agency’s investigation?Â Under the 1977 Mine Act, issuing subpeonas for sworn testimony can only occur in the context of a public hearing (Section 103(b)).Â Â Because MSHA rarely* conducts a public hearing as part of an accident investigation, the Act’s subpeona power has gone unused.Â
That may change, however, if H.R. 2768 becomes law.Â One provision of this comprehensiveÂ billÂ to improve miners’ safety and health would give MSHAÂ broad subpeona power (page 36 ofÂ H.R. 2768).Â This power would extend not only to major disasters, but to any situation in which MSHA’s mission to protect miners’ health and safetyÂ would be served by obtaining data, documents, physical evidence or testimony.Â
Right now, if an MSHA investigator wants a document from a mine operator, s/he asks (pretty please) for it.Â If this subpeona-power provision of H.R. 2769 becomes law, MSHA’s request would have the force of law, and uncooperative employers would be on record of refusing MSHA’s request for safety and health related information.
*Note: MSHA held a public hearing after a July 1999 explosion at the Kaiser Aluminum plant in Gramercy, Louisiana, and participated in a joint public hearing in May 2006 with the State of West Virginia in its probe of the Sago Mine disaster.