Mine-safety post vacancy criticized

Labor » Union says not filling the position 'puts miners at immediate risk.'
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A decision not to replace the state's recently departed director of the Office of Coal Mine Safety is a "travesty that puts miners at immediate risk," a national union official said Wednesday.

Daniel Kane, international secretary-treasurer of the Virginia-based United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), criticized Utah Labor Commissioner Sherrie Hayashi's decision not to fill the position vacated by Garth Nielsen.

"Safety has to come first, no matter what state they're in. The message that is being reinforced here is that safety is way down the list in Utah," he said in a news release. "That's a terrible message to send."

The UMWA represents rank-and-file miners in two of Utah's seven operating coal mines.

The 2008 Legislature created the Office of Coal Mine Safety to increase the state's oversight role after nine miners were killed and six were injured in August 2007 by two catastrophic collapses of walls at the Crandall Canyon mine in Emery County.

A commission led by former University of Utah law professor and U.S. Attorney Scott Matheson made nearly four dozen recommendations about ways to enhance mine safety and accident response.

The main result of the commission's extensive review was the creation of the one-person office led by Nielsen. While the office had no enforcement powers, Nielsen visited Utah coal mines, collected information about safety plans, was the state's liaison to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and established a hot line people could call with safety concerns.

A 35-year mining industry veteran from Helper, Nielsen had been hired in July of 2008. He left the position March 4 to work for Savage Industries, Inc., which is heavily involved in trucking coal from mines to markets and operates a coal processing and load-out facility in Carbon County.

"He found a better job, twice the pay," said Nielsen's superior, safety division director Pete Hackford. "He's a good man. I hated to lose him."

Hackford released a message from Hayashi to a Mine Safety Technical Advisory Council, which was also created in response to the commission's recommendations. In it, she emphasized the commission "has not eliminated the position due to funding reductions; however, in light of some ongoing concerns over budget issues, the [labor] commission has decided not to fill the position."

Even if the office had little power, Kane said "it was a small but critically needed step in the right direction toward safer coal mines in Utah. But now, less than three years later, Utah has taken a step backwards in protecting its miners."

"Utah coal miners bleed just like miners in other states. They can be subjected to unsafe working conditions just like miners in other states," he added. "I understand budgets and I know times are tough. That's true in every state where coal is mined. Yet only Utah has seen fit to zero-out its oversight of coal mine safety entirely."