Labor boss faults mine operators
Senate testimony will also lash at feds, call tragedy 'preventable'
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WASHINGTON - The head of the nation's largest miners union lays blame for the death of six miners and three rescuers in Utah's Crandall Canyon coal mine at the feet of the mine owner and federal regulators.

Cecil Roberts, president of United Mine Workers of America, is expected to tell a Senate subcommittee today that the mine tragedy actually started in June when the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration approved a plan to use a risky process called retreat mining.

"Make no mistake about it, this disaster was not an act of God, but an act of man," Roberts will say, according to prepared testimony obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune. "It was preventable."

Roberts' scathing remarks clash with mine co-owner Robert Murray's repeated comment that the miners' fates were in the "Lord's hands," and that the tragedy was triggered in what he called the "evil mountain" by an earthquake - a claim seismologists dispute. Murray, founder and head of Murray Energy Corp., declined an invitation to appear before the subcommittee.

A Senate subcommittee today will take an initial look at the Crandall Canyon mine disaster, eyeing several aspects of the tunnel collapse, the rescue efforts and broader issues of whether federal regulators were doing enough to protect mine workers.

It's the first of what is expected to be a series of probes into the Utah mine tragedy last month. Three separate congressional committees are looking into the deadly collapse, as a well as a new Utah panel and a commission appointed by the Labor Department secretary. MSHA has just begun its review.

Dirk Fillpot, an MSHA spokesman, said most members of the team appointed to investigate the Crandall Canyon mine disaster were traveling Tuesday to Utah. Their probe is expected to begin today.

Fillpot was unable to provide details on the itinerary MSHA investigators will follow, but noted that MSHA has an "Accident/Illness Investigation Handbook" that documents procedures to be followed.

The Inspector General's Office of the Labor Department also confirmed Tuesday it is launching its own probe of MSHA's actions in regard to the mine disaster.

An official of a mining association is expected to testify that the industry supported "strong new mine safety legislation" last year and that mine owners want to return to a path it was on previously when facts showed a steady reduction in deaths and serious injuries, according to the National Mining Association.

Bruce Watzman, vice president of the NMA, plans to signal an openness to more investment in mine safety equipment and training.

"Fatalities are tragic," says Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the trade group. "But failing to learn from them - and failing to act on what we learn - would be inexcusable. We must not let that happen."

The head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, Richard Stickler, also will testify before the subcommittee along with J. Davitt McAteer, a former director of MSHA.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies - which held two hearings on the Sago mine disaster last year and in January - says sadly, the committee is back holding another hearing on another mine tragedy.

The fact rescuers had to drill seven unsuccessful holes to try and find the trapped miners raises the question of why there is not technology implemented to communicate and track underground miners, Harkin says.

"We owe it to our mining families to do everything in our power to get this done right and make sure every miner returns home safely at the end of their work day," Harkin said in a statement Tuesday.

Committee staffers say the goal of the hearing is to "understand MSHA's role in response to the disaster," and how the agency's approval of the mine plan and inspections of it relate to the disaster.

The query will look at what happened leading up to the disaster, a committee aide said, because, "Obviously you can't do oversight of MSHA without looking at the whole picture."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who does not sit on the Appropriations Committee, plans to attend the hearing anyway, as does his Senate colleague Bob Bennett of Utah, who is a member of the full committee.

Bennett says he does not have any "silver-bullet questions" to ask but wants to find out what did MSHA know and when did the agency know it.

In particular, Bennett said as he visited the mine last week, two days after the disaster, there was a unanimous - "and not just unanimous, but emphatic" - decision to cease rescue efforts until the seismic activity had settled. Yet the effort continued. So, "What told you that seismic activity had stopped?" Bennett asked.

Kevin Stricklin, head of MSHA's coal mine safety division, said previously he was in every meeting and did not recall any unanimous decision not to send rescuers back in.

tburr@sltrib.com

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* Tribune reporters MIKE GORRELL and ROBERT GEHRKE contributed to this story.

Crandall Canyon mine disaster investigation

Today's Senate hearing will address several issues raised in the wake of the disaster, including:

* The decision to continue rescue operations;

* A March incident in the mine that may have signaled potential problems;

* The choice to let news media and family members into the mine during rescue operations;

* The handling of news briefings;

* The implementation of last year's MINER Act, heralded as the biggest breakthrough in mine safety in 30 years.