Three Utah coal mines hit with extra inspections

Safety concern » Federal regulators target mining operations with a history of violations.
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Three Utah coal mines were among 57 nationally subjected to extraordinary weekend checks from federal safety inspectors in the wake of the West Virginia disaster that killed 29 miners April 5.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which has been criticized since the deadly explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine for its inability to stop mine disasters, identified the targeted mines as:

» West Ridge, in Carbon County, operated by Murray Energy Corp. subsidiary West Ridge Resources Inc.

» Horizon, also in Carbon County, owned by Salt Lake City-based America West Resources Inc.

» Bear Canyon No. 4, in Emery County, a property of Kingston family-owned C. W. Mining Co., now under the auspices of a U.S. Bankruptcy Court trustee.

MSHA boss Joe Main said mines involved in the "inspection blitz" had a history of "significant and/or repeat violations." His inspectors focused on safety standards concerning methane, ventilation practices and applications of explosion-reducing rock dust -- "the type of violations that can lead to mine accidents."

"The purpose of these inspections is to provide assurance that no imminent dangers, explosions, hazards or other serious health or safety conditions and practices are present at these mines," said Main, a longtime safety specialist with the United Mine Workers of America union before his appointment by the Obama administration.

"Just last week, we pledged to the president that we will do whatever it takes to make sure another tragedy like the one that claimed 29 miners' lives at Upper Big Branch never happens again," he added.

Inspection results will be made public as soon as they become available, Main pledged. At that point, operators would be subject to standardized fines for whatever violations are cited.

Representatives of the inspected Utah mines expressed confidence their operations will pass MSHA's extra scrutiny with little difficulty.

Dan Baker, CEO of America West Resources, said the Horizon mine had a high rate of "significant and substantial" violations in 2007. But since then, the rate has "dropped precipitously," with revisions to the mine's roof-support plan, advances in safety and emergency-rescue training, and improvements to general mine-development strategy.

"America West is immensely proud of the fact we have operated for nearly two years without incurring a single loss-of-work incident at Horizon -- testament to our unwavering commitment to miner safety ... and the safety-minded culture we have created, support and nurture every single day," he said.

Christopher Van Bever, an attorney for Murray Energy, whose American Coal Co. operations in Illinois also were targeted by MSHA, said the company "places the highest possible priority on the safety of our employees, and we are prepared to cooperate with MSHA to ensure safe working environments at our coal mining operations."

Murray Energy's Crandall Canyon mine, in Emery County, was the site of the country's last mine disaster before Upper Big Branch. Nine men were killed and six were injured in a pair of ground implosions there in August 2007.

A Bear Canyon official declined to comment, referring questions to the bankruptcy trustee, who could not be reached.

Robert Ferriter, who spent 27 years as an MSHA inspector before becoming director of the Colorado School of Mines' safety and health program, said it isn't unusual for MSHA to launch spot inspections after a disaster. Having known Main for decades, he is convinced this blitz is not just a public-relations ploy.

"Joe Main is definitely committed to the safety of miners. I've been across the table from him on a lot of different cases. As long as he's in the [MSHA] chair, you'll see an increased commitment to inspect problem mines," he said.

Pointing to five disasters since 2006 (at the Sago, Alma Aracoma, Darby, Crandall Canyon and Upper Big Branch mines), Ferriter said "there's something wrong. We're not progressing to protect the miner. We're regressing."

Advocating tougher enforcement, he added, "if you look at the frequent violations, if the operators are ignoring them or giving them low priority, they need to be hammered because the regulations are all written in blood.

"They're not written by regulators sitting around, looking to torment the industry. I think the regulations are pretty good, but if you don't apply them, all the books of regulations you print won't do any good."


Inspection blitz

Mines in 10 states were inspected by squads of MSHA officials last weekend. Their targets, by state: West Virginia (23 mines); Kentucky (14); Alabama (4); Utah, Illinois and Indiana (3 each); Pennsylvania, Virginia and Tennessee (2 apiece); and Colorado (1).