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Senators demand answers on mine

A committee accuses safety officials of ignoring risky conditions in Utah.

September 06, 2007|Tina Marie Macias | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Senators demanded answers from the federal mine safety chief Wednesday, accusing his agency of ignoring signs of unsafe conditions at a Utah mine that collapsed last month, entombing six miners.

At the first congressional hearing on mine safety since the Aug. 6 disaster, members of a Senate appropriations subcommittee cited multiple safety violations at the Crandall Canyon Mine, a lack of substantial fines for those violations, and roof collapses or "bumps" at the mine beginning in March.

"With these nine deaths," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), referring to the six trapped miners and three rescuers killed 10 days later, "there was criminal negligence here with all these threats being known."

But Richard E. Stickler, head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, told the panel that he was unaware of the March bumps until after the August mine disaster. He said he was unable to answer many of the questions posed by the senators until his agency's investigation was complete.

Three mine experts criticized Stickler for his agency's June approval of a plan to allow retreat mining -- a technique in which miners extract mineral remaining in pillars of coal and speed out before the roof collapses -- in the area where the six men were trapped.

"This disaster was not an act of God, but an act of man," said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America. "It was preventable."

Roberts and J. Davitt McAteer, a former mine safety chief, said Stickler elevated the possibility of a roof collapse by permitting retreat mining in a mine that had a history of bumps. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health defines a mine bump as a sudden outburst of coal and rock caused when stresses in a pillar of coal, left for support of a work area, cause the pillar to rupture.

"So you take the most dangerous type of mining and then you put it in an area that's prone to these bumps and outbursts. . . . Now you've caused an ultra-dangerous situation," McAteer said.

Rescue efforts at the mine were suspended indefinitely Friday, apparently forever entombing Kerry Allred, Don Erickson, Luis Hernandez, Carlos Payan, Brandon Phillips and Manuel Sanchez. It is not known whether the six men survived the first thunderous mountain shudder that caused the mine's support system to collapse.

Three rescue workers died during a second collapse Aug. 16, bringing a halt to tunnel-clearing efforts to reach the trapped men.

Despite the deaths during the rescue efforts, the three mine experts -- Roberts, McAteer and Bruce Watzman, the National Mine Assn.'s vice president for safety and health -- agreed that the conditions, while dangerous, did not prohibit attempts to find the trapped men.

"When you're trying to rescue miners, you weigh it the best you can," Roberts said. "I don't think they could have done this any safer than they did."

Disgruntled-sounding senators noted at Wednesday's hearing that legislation had been put in place last year to give additional authority to the mine safety agency.

In June 2006, in the aftermath of three mine disasters -- including the collapse of the Sago mine in West Virginia, in which 12 miners died -- Congress passed the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response, or MINER, Act.

"What the hell does it take to shake up that agency?" said Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.). "Mr. Stickler, it is way past time to take the gloves off, to take charge of the agency. . . . Crack some heads and empower your inspectors who are daily taking the miners' lives in their hands."

McAteer said that in a mine like Crandall Canyon, pressure could build up and would inevitably cause a mountain bump. That pressure can be monitored with equipment that has been around for more than a decade, but was not used in the Utah mine.

"That's the most profound inaccuracy of our system. . . . The pressure can build up; you can see it; you can hear it. Other countries have systems in place," he said, recommending that the device be used in mines similar to Crandall Canyon.

Senators also said Stickler mishandled the aftermath of the disaster. According to the MINER Act, Stickler should have been the chief communicator. Instead, he allowed Robert E. Murray, who owns the mine, to give what they say was misleading information and lead a camera crew into the part of the mine where three rescuers later died.

Specter told the audience of about a dozen miners and 50 other onlookers that Murray had declined an invitation to the hearing. "First, he thought he was too busy, then he said he was too sick," Specter said, adding that Murray did not supply any information about an illness.

Committee members said that they had too many unanswered questions to allow Murray to miss testifying, and that they would subpoena him if necessary. Additional hearings are expected next month.

"We will not allow him to avoid answering questions from this subcommittee," Specter said. "We will pursue this with a real intensity, and give assurance to the miners who risk their lives day in, day out."

Murray did not immediately return phone calls Wednesday.

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tina.macias@latimes.com

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