WASHINGTON - The head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration declined Wednesday to stand behind the mining plan - previously approved by his agency - at the Utah mine where nine workers were killed in cave-ins.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., chastised MSHA director Richard Stickler for "tepid" enforcement of mine-safety regulations and asked him point blank whether he would still endorse the Crandall Canyon mining plan approved by MSHA in June. Some believe the plan was dangerously flawed and led to the collapse.
"I will have to see the result of the accident investigative team," Stickler said, avoiding a yes or no answer. "I will wait until I get that information before I make that decision."
Stickler was on the hot seat Wednesday before a Senate subcommittee, one of three congressional panels probing the tragedy that trapped six miners and killed three rescue workers trying to reach them.
Under pressure from the committee, Stickler acknowledged he did not know about a March "bump" - a term for a pressure-born explosion of coal walls - that occurred in the Crandall Canyon mine about 900 feet from where the six miners were later caught in a cave-in.
The mine operators did not notify MSHA about the bump when it occurred, Stickler said, and he first heard of the incident from a news reporter. He said investigators would determine if the bump should have been reported.
Rob Moore, vice president of Murray Energy Corp., the co-owner of the mine, said Wednesday that management took appropriate action after the March bump and MSHA knew about the event.
Robert Murray, CEO of the company, declined to testify and senators signaled they would compel him to appear if he does not testify voluntarily.
"First, he said he was too busy but now he says he's too sick," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said. "I'm personally convinced that we need and will issue a subpoena here."
Specter, who had opposed Stickler's nomination to the MSHA post, quizzed the director on why his agency didn't consider the bumps before and after the Aug. 6 collapse as a potential warning.
"You know there's going to be another one," Specter said. "Isn't there just blatant failure by MSHA to recognize the fundamental problem caused by these bumps?"
Stickler said that seismic activity can't predict future bumps and that rescue efforts had made the mountain more unstable leading to the other cave-ins. In a tense exchange, Specter pressed Stickler on why many violations at the Crandall Canyon mine carried no fine. Stickler said fines hadn't been assessed yet and told Specter he didn't understand what he was reading.
Specter charged back that he reads English just fine and if Stickler continued to evade the question, "we're going to have to look even more sharply on everything you've told us."
Byrd, the chairman of the full Appropriations Committee, lectured Stickler on MSHA's enforcement.
"What the hell is the problem at MSHA?" Byrd asked rhetorically, as several audience members erupted in applause.
"It is past time - way past time to take the gloves off," Byrd told Stickler, advising him to "crack some heads" at the agency to make improvements.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, stood up for the embattled witness.
"It's always easier after the fact to come in and find fault," Hatch added. He later told reporters that MSHA did the best it could with the knowledge it had and it is "pretty tough" to have the foresight to see a bump would occur.
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, asked Stickler why rescue operations weren't halted earlier as Bennett had been told was the case. "It was with great feeling in the pit of my stomach to hear that rescue operations had begun again and three rescue workers were killed," Bennett said. Stickler said the experts thought it was safe for rescuers to re-enter the mine.
Two other witnesses said MSHA never should have approved plans to use a process at Crandall Canyon called retreat mining, or pillar-removal mining, which involves chipping away at coal blocks holding up the underground ceiling.
Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, said there were warning signs that retreat mining would be even more dangerous at this mine and that federal authorities took only about a week to approve it.
Former MSHA director Davitt McAteer stressed that the mining plan at Crandall Canyon should never have been approved. "The mine safety program is broken in this country," he said.
Moore said the mining plan was recommended by the "foremost consulting engineers," the company's engineers and MSHA officials. He said McAteer and Roberts were "incorrect" in their statements.
"They have no knowledge of the situation," Moore said in an e-mail. Wednesday evening, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate labor committee, asked Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne for Bureau of Land Management documents relating to the mine. Much of the coal at Crandall Canyon was federally owned and leased to Murray's company by BLM.
BLM documents obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune show an inspector had concerns about the type of mining being done, and the head of minerals at BLM's Utah office said the company never asked for the agency's approval to conduct retreat mining at Crandall Canyon.
* ROBERT GEHRKE contributed to this story.
* MSHA head Richard Stickler declined to stand by the mine plan approved by his agency pending further review.
* Investigators still want to know what effect, if any, earlier mountain "bumps" had in predicting or contributing to the deadly cave-ins of Aug. 6 and Aug. 16.
* The Senate indicated it may subpoena Crandall Canyon mine co-owner Robert Murray to testify.