Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash) introduced a bill (S. 2127) to see that family members of miners involved in disasters like the 2006 Sago and 2007 Crandall tragedies receive accurate information about the rescue operations and appropriate post-accident support.

At a Senate Appropriations’ subcommittee hearing on Sept. 5, Senator Murray suggested that she was examining the family-assistance program in place at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as a model for mining disasters (See previous post here).  At an October 2 hearing of the Senate HELP Committee, members heard a bit about how the NTSB’s Office of Transporation Disaster Assistance works.

One of the most interesting provisions in S. 2127 is the creation of a taskforce which would include representatives of family members who have been involved in mining disasters.  The taskforce would be responsible for preparing a report and recommendations within one year, on topics including:

  • guidelines to assist mine operators in responding to mining accidents;
  • the appropriate role for families of miners in any official MSHA investigation, including the appropriate level of access to information used to develop the final accident investigation report.

At a hearing held on October 3 about the Crandall Canyon disaster, family members described the difficulty they had in getting accurate information about the accident and the rescue efforts. 

“I want to let everyone know how these last two months have been like a roller-coaster for all of us.  From day one, we have been let down by Mr. Murray [Murray Energy CEO] and by MSHA.   Mr. Murray told us immediately after the collapse that we could trust God and him, and he would stop at nothing to find our loved ones.  Everyday went by where we were thinking maybe today.  But we just continually got let down. …The manner in which Murray and MSHA approached the families for the first two weeks after the collapse was unbelievable.  They just told us what we wanted to hear, and not the facts.” (Michael Marasco, son-in-law of Crandall Canyon coal miner Kerry Allred)

Mr. Marasco’s statement shows the lack of trust that he (and probably other family members) had of Murray Energy representatives and MSHA.  Understandably, any trust they may have had initially was lost when they received conflicting and erroneous information from these sources.  Now, the investigation is being conducted by the agency (MSHA) which approved the mine operator’s plans.  The other major participant in the investigation is the mining company.  There are no family members involved in the investigation, and no representative of the workers of the (now-closed) Crandall Canyon mine.

As Mrs. Wendy Black, the widow of Dale Black (who was killed on August 16 along with two other men attempting to rescue the six trapped miners) said:

“I want to know, if there are rules and regulations made to protect the miners, then who is held accountable to make sure these rules and regulations are followed.   MSHA has ONE job—mine safety and health.  It would have taken just one MSHA man doing his job to have saved my husband’s life.  Which one wasn’t doing their job?  Now, explain to me how do you investigate yourself?”   

This is not the first time, I’ve heard a widow or other family member ask how MSHA can conduct a robust accident investigation, when the cause of the fatalities may involve not only the mine operator’s violations of safety standards, but also insufficient enforcement and oversight by MSHA officials themselves.  That may be a hard pill to swallow–that the agency’s own failings contributed to miners’ deaths—but maybe the time has come for a new model to investigate these disasters.