Two mine-safety initiatives spurred by the 2007 Crandall Canyon disaster have come to fruition almost five years later.
Locally, the state Board of Regents formally signed off last month on the creation of a Center for Mining Safety and Health Excellence at the University of Utah. The center is designed to enhance safety through advocacy, education, research and consultation.
Nationally, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) also announced in July that it was adopting stricter standards for evaluating roof-control plans for excavating weight-bearing pillars of coal in mines deep underground.
On Aug. 6, 2007, a six-man team of miners was "pulling pillars," as the practice is called in miner lingo, when the walls of the Crandall Canyon mine imploded on them. Not knowing whether the crew had survived the collapse, rescuers dug frantically for 10 days to reach them. But their efforts were terminated when a second implosion killed three rescuers and injured six others.
The bodies of the six missing miners were sealed inside the Emery County mine.
Those miners were working in a tunnel about 1,600 feet below the surface. MSHA had approved the roof-control plan that allowed the mine operator, a subsidiary of Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp., to remove pillars of coal left behind in earlier mining operations to support the roof.
After a four-year criminal investigation of the disaster, the U.S. Attorney's Office charged the Murray Energy subsidiary with a misdemeanor and fined it $250,000 for violating the roof-control plan.
The probe determined that three days before the first fatal implosion, the company had been cutting into a pillar that had been specifically excluded from mining. The Murray Energy subsidiary also was fined another $250,000 for not reporting, in a timely manner, an earlier collapse in a section of the mine not far from where the Aug. 6 disaster occurred.
Kevin Stricklin, the MSHA administrator over coal mining, said his agency now will take a much closer look at proposals to pull pillars in deep mines. The tougher approval process was recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which published a 2010 study on pillar extraction that Congress had ordered after Crandall Canyon.
The creation of the center at the University of Utah is one of the few post-disaster changes put into place from among numerous recommendations by the Utah Mine Safety Commission, appointed by former Gov. Jon Huntsman to improve state safety practices.
It is directed by Tom Hethmon, an associate professor of mining engineer who occupies what is called the Western Mining Presidential Endowed Chair in Mine Safety. That position is being funded with a $1.5 million endowment, money that came largely from several mining companies Consol Energy, Barrick Goldstrike Mines, Peabody Energy, Kennecott Utah Copper and Arch Coal.
"As a global source of mining engineers since 1896, we knew bringing additional expertise into our department would help improve the safety education of our undergraduate and graduate mining engineering students, who often progress to positions of authority in major mining companies," said Mike Nelson, chairman of the U.'s mining engineer department.
"But that professional development process can take years," he added. "I hope the center can serve as a catalyst for change. We will make a difference, but this must be a partnership among many stakeholders."