It’s been nearly four months since nine men were killed at the Crandall Canyon mine in Emery County, Utah.  Congressman George Miller (D-CA) held a hearing in early October on the disaster, but a Senate hearing, scheduled for Dec 4, for which the mine operator Robert Murray had been subpeonaed, was cancelled.  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 the August 2007 disaster, but following a “bounce” in March 2007.  This devastating event was not reported to MSHA by the company, although MSHA regulations (Part 50)  require mine operators to do so.  The regulation states plainly that

“a 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.  He quotes an attorney representing 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.  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?'”

 The SLT’s Gorrell and Gherke describe a public meeting on November 20, 2007 of the Utah Mine Safety Commission, (established by Utah Governor Huntsman following the Crandall Canyon disaster) and MSHA’s investigation team.  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.  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…  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 Clair [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?  Why is it that MSHA hasn’t yet interviewed the guy—the mine operator—who was so quick to speak before TV cameras?   It’s FOUR months later for goodness sake!  I suspect that some individuals close to the investigation might argue “well, he was just the mine owner.  What did he really know about the day-to-day operations at the mine?” 

I’d suggest that Mr. Murray’s attitude about business economics and the means of production (including coal miners themselves) could be extremely revealing about how the Crandall Canyon mine was run.  Remember what we learned about BP’s cost-cutting measures at the Texas City plant and its deadly consequences for workers and the community? 

If MSHA is truly interested in the “root cause” of the Crandall Canyon disaster (or any mine fatality for that matter) interviewing officials from along the whole management chain should be a priority.  So frequently we find that workplace fatalities are a deadly mix of organizational/ management factors AND physical hazards.  Investigators need to hear from the management officials themselves to shed light onto a company’s philosophy and its possible role in 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.”  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 from Agapito Associates are fine, but sworn interviews about Murray Energy’s assignments to the consultants are equally important.

Why doesn’t MSHA compel Robert Murray or consultants from Agapito to testify as part of the agency’s investigation?  Under the 1977 Mine Act, issuing subpeonas for sworn testimony can only occur in the context of a public hearing (Section 103(b)).   Because MSHA rarely* conducts a public hearing as part of an accident investigation, the Act’s subpeona power has gone unused. 

That may change, however, if H.R. 2768 becomes law.  One provision of this comprehensive bill to improve miners’ safety and health would give MSHA broad subpeona power (page 36 of H.R. 2768).  This power would extend not only to major disasters, but to any situation in which MSHA’s mission to protect miners’ health and safety would be served by obtaining data, documents, physical evidence or testimony. 

Right now, if an MSHA investigator wants a document from a mine operator, s/he asks (pretty please) for it.  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.

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*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.

The two stories by The Salt Lake Tribune reporters are here and here.

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