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HUNTINGTON - Emery County residents delivered a clear message Tuesday to the Utah Mine Safety Commission, which is trying to determine what role the state should play in mine safety following last month's Crandall Canyon disaster.
Retired and longtime miners, county commissioners and mining-company officials agreed that adding another layer of regulations and bureaucracy would do little to improve safety, but could prompt mines to close and the coal-dependent economies of Emery and Carbon counties to wither.
But many of those speakers also expressed relief that the eight-member commission, which listened and responded to more than five hours of commentary, did not seem intent on hammering the coal industry because of the deaths of nine miners in two cave-ins at the Crandall Canyon mine.
"Local people feel this [commission] is a shot-from-the-hip reaction," said Emery County Commissioner Jeff Horrocks said. "But from what I heard today, that's not the case."
He and commission chairman Drew Sitterud, who also noted that he had been "getting calls from people saying 'the politicians are looking at coal miners. What do they know?' " said they were pleased to hear commission members express interest in miner education and training more than a regulatory crackdown.
"Tell your constituents not to be scared, that we're just trying to make sure our brothers and sisters [in the mines] go home each night in the same conditions they left," said Dennis O'Dell, a United Mine Workers of America health and safety official on the state commission. And, he added, "Utah has a perfect opportunity to come up with some kind of agency to give miners better protection."
The need for more education and training was emphasized in the morning by officials from two of Utah's largest coal companies - Canyon Fuel Co., which runs the Dugout Canyon, Skyline and SUFCO mines, and Interwest Mining Co., the Rocky Mountain Power subsidiary that operates the Deer Creek mine - along with Allen Childs, a private engineer who helped start the Crandall Canyon mine.
Carl Pollastro, Interwest's director of technical services and project development, said coal companies are struggling to replace an older generation of miners. More education and training are needed to prepare entry-level people for the sophisticated world of modern mining and to certify experienced miners to fill key positions being vacated by retirees. Certification instructors also need better training, he added.
Commission member Mike Dmitrich, a state senator from Price, said he felt the Western Energy Training Center established recently in Price Canyon could be the answer. Pollastro concurred.
"We're overlooking a great resource if we don't start with [the center]. It's in an embryonic stage. We need to put a curriculum into place and refine it," he said.
This training, Childs added, could compensate for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration's lack of technical support in its Denver regional office. "They're down to two [specialists] because they've all been shipped back East. That's a deficiency that needs to be addressed," he said.
Whatever they do, Bruce Wilson of the Emery County Public Lands Council asked the commission, "please don't impose further regulations for the sake of doing something."
Elam Jones, a Crandall Canyon miner involved in the ill-fated effort to rescue the original six trapped miners, asked the commission to talk to miners themselves. "You need to talk to people who experienced it and didn't just hear about it," he said, although Dmitrich noted that many of those miners won't talk while MSHA conducts its disaster investigation.
"Proceed with caution," advised Joe Fielder, a management-level official with UtahAmerican Energy Inc., the co-owner/operator of Crandall Canyon. "Our nation and state depend on coal."
But Lee Cratsenburg, sister of killed rescuer Dale Black, also pleaded with the commission to help "make sure regulations are met in our mines . . . There were things that should've been taken care of at Crandall Canyon before this [disaster] ever happened."
The next commission meeting and public hearing will be on Tuesday in Price, starting at 10 a.m. in the Alumni Room at the College of Eastern Utah.