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Posted: 11:02 AM- WASHINGTON -- The head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration acknowledged Wednesday that the agency did not know about a March incident at a Utah mine that occurred only 900 feet from where six miners were later trapped by a cave-in.
MSHA director Richard Stickler testified before a Senate subcommittee that the agency's investigating team will determine whether the so-called mountain "bump," or explosion of coal walls because of pressure, should have been reported to MSHA.
"MSHA was not notified about this bump or the magnitude of the bump when it occurred," Stickler said in prepared testimony submitted to the committee. He acknowledged under questioning that he didn't see an April letter warning of the March bump until he returned to Washington after the Utah disaster.
A bump four months later in a nearby tunnel trapped - and ultimately entombed - six miners at the rural Crandall Canyon mine. Three other rescuers died trying to reach the trapped miners.
Meanwhile Wednesday, committee members signaled they may compel the co-owner of the Crandall Canyon mine, Bob Murray, to testify before the committee. Murray declined an invitation to appear before the committee.
"First he said he was too busy but now he says he's too sick," Sen. Arlen Specter said. "I'm personally convinced that we need and will issue a subpoena here."
Stickler was the first witness at Wednesday's subcommittee hearing - the first of a series of congressional probes into the Utah mine cave-in. Two other committees are also investigating the tragedy as well as four other state or federal agencies.
Wednesday's hearing focused on the mountain bumps, several of which occurred after the Aug. 6 cave in. One of the bumps killed the three rescue workers, whose bodies were later recovered.
Specter, R-Pa., quizzed Stickler on why MSHA did not pay more attention to the bumps and the indication they may show to more problems.
"You know there's going to be another one," Specter said about the bumps. "Isn't there just blatant failure by MSHA to recognize the fundamental problem caused by these bumps?"
Stickler responded that seismic activity can't be used to identify future bumps and that rescue efforts had made the mountain more unstable leading to the other problems.
In a more tense moment, Specter continued to press Stickler on why there have been several violations at the Crandall Canyon mine but few carried a monetary fine. Stickler said the fine hadn't been assessed yet and told Specter he didn't understand what he was reading.
Specter charged back that he read 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."
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., lectured Stickler on MSHA's enforcement, saying that despite several other tragedies and deaths the agency's efforts were still "tepid."
"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.
Other witnesses today included the head of the Mine Workers of America, the nation's largest mine worker union, who planned to tell the committee that the tragedy was preventable and the blame lies with the mine operator and federal regulators for approving a risky process called retreat mining.
That dangerous procedure involves removing pillars of coal holding up the main ceiling and allowing the roofs to collapse.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also questioned Stickler at the hearing, but stayed away from critical questions. Hatch, who was not a member of the committee but sat in on the hearing, asked Stickler if it was correct that there were a limited number of bumps at the mine from 1992 to 2007, and Stickler agreed.
Stickler also noted under questioning by other committee members that there was a whistleblower at the mine who complained that mine operators weren't following the law on rescue teams. Stickler said the agency responded by ordering Murray to comply.