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Digging for answers: Congress should probe coal mine collapse

Published August 22, 2007 7:17 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

When the time comes to lay blame for the Crandall Canyon coal mine tragedy, investigators should be mindful of an old adage: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."

In other words, you can't blame the mountain for the massive cave-in that trapped six miners 1,500 feet underground. Mine officials, after experiencing a similar collapse in March, should have seen it coming. Perhaps they were blinded by dollar signs.

According to a mine consultant's memo, a major roof collapse caused extensive damage to underground tunnels in March, forcing the mine owners to abandon work north of where the Aug. 6 cave-in occurred. Crews were conducting "retreat" mining, a dangerous method that maximizes production by scavenging coal pillars that help form the structural support system for the mine.

But that didn't stop mine officials from seeking, and receiving, permission to conduct retreat mining in another section of the mine in June. And worse, there is no record that the March incident was reported to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, as required under federal mining laws.

Had federal regulators known about the March collapse, maybe they would have denied the request. Or maybe not. Industry analysts say the MSHA under the Bush administration has a reputation for catering to mine operators by emphasizing production over safety.

The agency's decision to allow retreat mining at Crandall Canyon, a method deemed too dangerous by the previous owner, should be the focus when investigators converge. Extreme depth and geologic instability make the practice particularly dangerous in some Western mines, perhaps too risky to allow.

But the probe shouldn't stop there. Congress needs to get involved and investigate MSHA and its director, Richard Stickler.

Stickler is a former mine manager appointed by Bush during a congressional recess last year after it became apparent that the Senate would not confirm his nomination. Several senators expressed concern that safety would suffer under Stickler, as MSHA critics say it has, with cursory inspections and cozy relationships with mine operators.

Those allegations need to be explored and, if found to be true, the culture at the agency must change. MSHA should not cater to the industry it regulates at the expense of the workers it is charged to protect.