Mine safety council cites money woes at 1st meeting

Coal » Panel evaluates technical ways to boost safety.
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Inspired by the 2007 Crandall Canyon disaster, state efforts to make Utah's mines safer and to improve the emergency response system took a small step forward Tuesday.

But there were repeated references at the first meeting of the state Mine Safety Technical Advisory Council at the Utah Labor Commission in Salt Lake City that little money is available to change current conditions, be it something as high-tech as installing a seismic monitoring system covering all of coal country or something as basic as enhancing miner training.

"In tough economic times, we can do a lot of preparations but can only take a little action," acknowledged Utah Labor Commissioner Sherrie Hayashi, whose state agency includes the year-old Office of Coal Mine Safety and, now, its technical advisory council.

Legislators created the one-man office and the 18-member council last year in response to the Aug. 6, 2007, implosion of the Crandall Canyon mine's walls, fatally burying six miners. Three more died 10 days later in a futile rescue effort.

A federal Mine Safety and Health Administration investigation concluded Crandall Canyon's engineering was so bad the mine was destined to fail. It fined the operator, a Murray Energy Corp. subsidiary, $1.6 million for a violations leading to the first implosion and later recommended the U.S. Attorney's Office consider criminal charges. That review is continuing. The company has challenged the fines.

The advisory council includes six representatives of Utah's coal mining industry (no one from Murray Energy), the state's highest-ranking United Mine Workers of America union official, a mine-safety consultant and three academics from the University of Utah and College of Eastern Utah. Because mine disasters significantly impact local emergency responders, it also includes Emery County Sheriff Lamar Guymon and Terri Watkins, top nurse at Castleview Hospital in Price.

Nonvoting members include Hayashi and officials from MSHA, the federal Bureau of Land Management, state Department of Public Safety and Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining.

They discussed 40-some recommendations made by a commission appointed by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to evaluate Utah's role in mine safety. A couple have been implemented, such as the hiring of veteran miner Garth Nielsen to run the office.

But others have been blunted by the recession. Limited funding is available for miner training by CEU and the Western Energy Training Center. In addition, U. of U. efforts to produce mining engineers is "falling behind and it's going to get worse" as faculty member retirements exceed the number of graduates, said mining professor Kim McCarter.

Union leader Mike Dalpiaz worried: "All this good work we're doing here, without funding, isn't going to go anywhere."

But speaking from audience, Ken May, general manager of Arch Coal Co.'s Sufco mine outside of Salina, warned the council to beware of hurting an economically fragile, but still safety-conscious mining industry that provides 90 percent of Utah's electricity.

"We had an issue at Crandall Canyon. It's behind us," said May. "We're all working hard to make damn sure it's a safe business."


Technical Advisory Council members

Mike Dalpiaz » United Mine Workers of America

Steven Childs » Skyline mine

Don Shelly » Deer Creek mine

John Byars » Sufco mine

Jimmy Brock » Consol Energy

Robert Weyher Jr. » Utah Mining Association

Ralph Sanich » Interwest Mining Co.

Randy Tatton » Mining Health & Safety Solutions

Lamar Guymon » Emery County Sheriff

Terri Watkins » Castleview Hospital nursing supervisor

Walter Arabasz » University of Utah Seismography Stations

Kim McCarter » University of Utah mining engineering department

Miles Nelson » College of Eastern Utah labor commission

*Sherrie Hayashi » Utah Labor Commissioner

*Bruce Riches » Utah Department of Public Safety

*John Baza » Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining

*J.D. McKenzie » Federal Bureau of Land Management

*Allyn Davis » Federal Mine Safety & Health Administration

*Nonvoting members

What's next?

The Mine Safety Technical Advisory Council will meet June 23 to establish priorities in its quest to improve mine safety and the public-private response to any future disasters