In “Memo shows mine already had roof problems,” (Aug 12) the Salt Lake Tribune‘s Robert Gehrke first reported on a history of rockbursts at the Crandall Canyon mine.*  I first learned this on NPR‘s Morning Edition (Aug 14) when Frank Langfitt reported that in March of this year, another severe rockburst occurred at the Crandall Canyon coal mine.  Apparently, no miners were injured by that mining “bump,” which Langfitt described “like an explosion as the floor buckles and coal shoots out from the pillars that hold up the ceiling,” but the situation was severe enough, that Murray Energy hired a consulting firm to assess the conditions and provide recommendations. 

My question: did the mine operator report this earlier rockburst to MSHA?

Under MSHA regulations (Part 50)  a mine operator is required, within 10 working days, to report certain kinds of accidents and injuries to the agency.  Among the reportable incidents is:

“a coal or rock outburst that causes withdrawl of miners or which disrupts regular mining activity for more than one hour.”

But when I examine the excerpts of the accident reports filed by Murray Energy for the Crandall Canyon mine (which MSHA, to its credit, posts on its website here) I don’t see any record of rockburst in March 2007, or any rockbursts at all for that matter dating back to 2006.  

Langfitt, who confirmed that he has a copy of the consultant’s report prepared by Agipito for Murray Energy, said their memo indicated that 

“the earlier incident was so severe that the company had to abandon that part of the mine.”

MSHA must have eventually learned of the rockburst because Murray Energy eventually revised its mining plan based on the consultant’s report.  But why didn’t the operator file the required Part 50 incident report on the rock-burst?  Or, why didn’t MSHA cite them for failing to report? 

These accident reporting requirements, whether for a miner’s fractured leg or a chemical burn, or for a mine fire or rockburst, serve a key purpose in our federal miners’ injury/illness/fatality regulatory system.   This data is not just some nicety; it’s an essential part of workplace safety and health prevention efforts.  If a mine has a history of rockbursts, but fails to report them to MSHA, how might this affect the way inspections are conducted, or the way federal inspectors interact with miners to learn their safety concerns, or the way that MSHA reviews a mine’s emergency response plan and approves it.

The NPR reporter also interviewed a former MSHA employee, Robert Ferriter, (1971-1997), who now runs the mine safety program at the Colorado School of Mines.  About rockbursts, Ferriter said:

“If you’re close enough to it, you could be thrown up and hit the roof.  You could be inundated when the pillar failed, with all kind of coal and dust flying around all over the place.”

Ferriter also reviewed the consultant’s memo for Langfitt, noting:

“The first reaction is they have high stress levels in that mine.  And of course, once you have high stress levels, you need to be prepared to handle those.  You want to make sure your pillars can handle that stress, that your floor is not being overloaded, your roof is not being overloaded.”

“I would not feel comfortable doing myself.  You’re mining in a high stress area, so that would give you things like crushing pillars and floor heave and eventually you could cave in the whole thing.” 

This certainly sounds to me like something about which the operator should have notified MSHA as required by the agency’s Part 50 regulations.  It’s too early to say how timely reports and records of previous rockbursts at Crandall Canyon may have affected efforts to prevent them, or the ongoing rescue efforts.   

*Gulp!  I’m sorry that I missed Robert Gehrke’s first reporting of this story in the Sunday Salt Lake Tribune (Aug 12).  The NPR story on Aug 14 was the first time I heard about the consultanting company’s memo to Murray Energy.   Gehrke’s article also had some revealing quotes from Robert Ferriter, the former MSHA mining engineer:

“It’s dangerous.  Damn dangerous I would say.  …What is MSHA doing in all this?  They’re the ones who are supposed to catch this sort of thing.”

Gehrke reported:

“Richard Stickler…head of MSHA, acknowledged the March incident, but said it occurred in an area hundreds of feet away.  But in a mine that stretches for miles, conditions in both areas woudl be ‘nearly identical,’ Ferriter said.  ‘If you had problems up there on the north side, I would expect you would have the same problems on the south side.'”

Gehrke also wrote:

“Repeated calls to Utah American Energy, Inc., the mine operators, seeking information on the roof issues were not returned.  Robert Murray, part owner of the mine, said he was not aware of any prior roof concerns. ‘It’s the first time I’ve heard of this.’ Murray said of the March incident.”

As Johnny Cash wrote and sang:

You can throw your rock, hide your hand,                                                            Workin in the dark against your fellow man.                                                           But as sure as God made black and white,                                                         What’s done in the dark, Will be brought to the light.

(Thanks Big Guy for sharing these lyrics.)

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