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Posted: 7:27 PM- PRICE -- Even before Monday's collapse at the Crandall Canyon mine, which trapped six workers, miners might have been harvesting the last loads of coal there.
The most accessible coal allowed to be extracted was gone, according to a state report, and most of what was left was the coal-industry equivalent of the bottom of the barrel.
Now there are questions about whether the mine will open again after the rescue operation is finished.
"That mine probably wouldn't have had much of a life left anyway," said Phil Smith a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America.
Mine ownership had already told the state of Utah that it planned to close in 2008. But now new safety concerns and economic realities might have arrived at the mine west of Huntington, hastening its demise.
The collapse could have caused so much damage to the mine's tunnel system that it might not be worth extracting more coal, said Michael Vanden Berg, a geologist with the Utah Geological Survey and who writes an annual report on the state's coal industry.
The Crandall Canyon mine already was a relatively small producer of coal, with miners extracting about 613,00 tons in 2006, according to the UGS. That was about 2 percent of the state's coal output for the year.
The mine's ownership, led by Murray Energy Co. president Bob Murray, told the state for its 2006 report that it was "pulling pillars," part of a practice of removing the embedded coal which previously was left to hold up the ceiling. That's usually the last step in extracting a mine's remaining coal.
"When a mine is doing retreat mining like these guys were doing, that means they're on their way out," Smith said. "They've advanced as far as they're going to advance."
And according to the Bureau of Land Management, there is no place else to go. The agency says that all of the coal deposits contiguous to the Crandall Canyon complex have been leased or are already mined.
Company representatives did not respond to inquires about the mine's future. But the UGS survey estimated 11 million tons of coal remain under permits issued to the Crandall Canyon mine and the South Crandall mine, which Murray also owns. The two mines sit on the same property but have different coal seams running through them and different access portals.
The survey did not distinguish how much of that 11 million tons sits in the Crandall Canyon mine versus the South Crandall. Regardless, miners never extract the last lump of coal from a mine. Something has to be left to hold the ceiling.
"So 11 million is fairly small, but it was a fairly small operation to begin with," Vanden Berg said.
The South Crandall mine has been idle since late 2006. Ownership had planned to extract more coal from there beginning in 2010, but it's unknown whether Monday's collapse damaged that mine as well, Vanden Berg said.
The Crandall Canyon mine employs about 70 workers. If it closes, the economic impact might be minimal, said Mike McCandless, Emery County's economic development director.
Also, since Murray owns two other mines in the area, workers could move to one of them.
"Without a doubt, there's going to be a shifting of employees," McCandless said.
Robby Robertson, a former miner and a cousin to Kerry Allred, one of the trapped workers, said sentiment should not be a factor in determining whether the mine continues.
"If there's coal there and it's safe enough it probably should stay open," Robertson said.