A commission led by former U.S. Attorney Scott Matheson Jr. was appointed by then-Gov. Jon Huntsman to review ways to enhance the state's role in mine safety. It made nearly 50 recommendations, but lawmakers settled for only creating an office that had no enforcement powers, primarily collected information about safety plans at the state's eight active mines and served as the state's liaison to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Mining industry veteran Garth Nielsen held the position for two years. But he resigned in March 2010 to take a higher-paying job with coal-haulage company Savage Industries Inc.
The position within the Utah Labor Commission has been vacant since then, largely because of commission budget cuts.
"We were able to fulfill the requirements of the statute [creating the office] with existing personnel," said Labor Commissioner Sherrie Hayashi, noting that a funding request before the 2011 Legislature went nowhere.
"But with the importance of filling that position, we managed to find some money" within the commission, she said. Houghton will be paid $32 an hour but no benefits.
The state's decision not to hire a replacement for Nielsen was criticized at the time by Daniel Kane, United Mine Workers of America international secretary-treasurer, as a signal that "safety is way down the list in Utah."
Mike Dalpiaz, a UMWA international board member from Price and a member of the state's Mine Safety Technical Advisory Committee, has known Houghton for decades and considers him "really conscientious."
But the position Houghton is inheriting is basically that of a figurehead, Dalpiaz added. "Legislators don't care about that position any more than the man in the moon," he said. "They won't care about mine safety until we have another Crandall Canyon." firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @sltribmikeg