This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Robert Murray, owner of the Crandall Canyon coal mine, likes to talk. Members of a U.S. Senate subcommittee, the first of three congressional panels to investigate the Aug. 6 tragedy at the mine, love to listen.
It is a match made for the moment. Because Congress needs to put Murray in front of a microphone, even if it means dragging him to Washington by the seat of his coal-covered coveralls, and get to the bottom of this disturbing, preventable deep-mine accident that claimed nine lives.
So far, the subcommittee has conducted a predictable probe, eliciting predictable responses. A union representative and a former federal mine safety director, who can't possibly be blamed, were candid. They said the mining plan for Crandall Canyon was dangerous and should never have been approved.
Richard Stickler, who is on the hook as the director of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, was combative, evasive and defensive, as might be expected. His agency approved the fateful mining plan, and had fined the Crandall Canyon mine just $12,973 for 64 violations in a one-year period leading up to the accident. A recess appointment by President Bush, Stickler couldn't muster the votes for approval by Congress because some senators suspected the former mine manager would be a shill for the coal companies and lax on safety.
But there are questions that remain to be asked, questions that Murray should be made to answer. Why wasn't MSHA notified, as required by law, of a March 10 roof collapse that proved to be a precursor of the August accident? Why wasn't the federal Bureau of Land Management informed of plans to conduct risky retreat mining, where pillars of coal that support a mine's roof are removed? And was Murray aware when he bought the mine that the previous owner had refused to remove the pillars due to safety concerns?
The committee already asked Murray to testify, but he declined. Now the members need to send him an invitation he can't refuse - a subpoena. And Murray would be wise to bring his lawyers along, because the preliminary evidence points to possible criminal negligence.
Production, not safety, was the apparent priority at Crandall Canyon. By all accounts, Murray wanted to mine every penny he could from the played-out colliery, thereby putting his employees at risk. And MSHA, known to coddle coal operators at the expense of coal miners, was complicit in this needless tragedy.