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PRICE - The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has determined the United Mine Workers of America union cannot represent the families of six trapped coal miners in the agency's upcoming investigation of the Crandall Canyon mine disaster.
The union filed papers with MSHA last Friday, saying that all six families had signed documents designating the UMWA as their representative when the agency launches its probe into the Aug. 6 collapse that trapped the miners deep underground.
The six still are missing and presumed dead. Three more men died Aug. 16 when the mine's walls blew in again as rescuers tried to dig their way back to the trapped miners through the rubble of the first implosion.
Crandall Canyon was a non-union mine. But the UMWA maintains federal law allows union involvement in safety investigations if requested by two or more miners or their families.
In this case, union spokesman Phil Smith said: "MSHA requires that miners sign these papers, but the miners in question were unable because they are trapped inside the mine."
A statement from MSHA spokesman Dirk Fillpot said, "We are disappointed that the UMWA is trying to use a law enforcement investigation for its own purposes. MSHA has spent untold hours briefing the families of the missing miners on every detail of the rescue activities and MSHA will keep them apprised of the progress of our investigation. The Mine Safety and Health Act is clear on who can seek representation in these investigations."
He referenced federal regulations that specify procedures for miners to identify their representatives, but that does not include provisions for family members to do so.
Mike Dalpiaz of Helper, a longtime union leader in Utah, said MSHA's ruling was not surprising and that the union will press Congressional committees to force the agency's investigation to include "an independent voice" such as the union.
"Right now, these families have no voice whatsoever because the mine operator [Murray Energy Corp.] and MSHA have a joint problem in what happened," said Dalpiaz.
"Whenever you have a tragedy, the more people, eyes and brains you have looking at it, it's to everyone's advantage," he added. "Let's make sure it doesn't happen again. Let's change those mining practices. Let's get those loved ones out of the mine."
Edward Havas, a Salt Lake City attorney representing the families in whatever legal proceedings develop from the disaster, said he was not certain if all six families of the trapped miners had asked for union assistance.
He added only that "on behalf of the families we welcome the intervention of anyone who can help us understand what happened or can improve safety in the mines and prevent anything like this from happening in the future."
Officials from Murray Energy and its Utah subsidiary, UtahAmerican Energy Inc., did not respond to requests for comment.
The strongest denunciation of MSHA's decision came from UMWA International President Cecil Roberts.
"By denying the families any participation in this investigation, MSHA is ensuring that it will be investigating itself. . . . American coal miners deserve better," he said. "The Crandall Canyon families have questions that demand answers. Why was the mining plan at Crandall Canyon submitted by Murray Energy when the previous owners of that mine declined to mine the same way, saying there was a problem with 'protection of personnel?' Why did MSHA approve it?"
Roberts also accused MSHA of being "a weak closing act at the 'official' news conferences about the disaster. [Mine co-owner Bob] Murray could say anything he liked, true or not, and if MSHA had anything different to say, it was buried under Murray's bombast."