Copyrighted material


by Mark Weisenmiller

Who Caused the Crandall Canyon Mine Disaster?

(IPS) -- The worst mine disaster in the United States this year, which occurred in mid-summer, has highlighted what appears to be a pattern of lackadaisical inspection and enforcement by the agency charged with overseeing safety compliance in the industry.

In early August, six miners became trapped about 457 metres deep following a collapse at Utah's Crandall Canyon mine. They had been digging for bituminous coal when the mine essentially caved in around them. When a group of rescue workers ventured into the tunnels, another cave-in occurred, killing three and injuring six.

Rescue efforts were finally abandoned after no signs of life had been detected for more than three weeks, and the men's bodies were left entombed in the Utah earth.

Numerous probes into the tragedy are now underway -- one by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), another by an independent team reviewing that agency's oversight of the mine during the prior year and its handling of the accident, and another by Utah's new mine safety board. Three congressional panels have also begun their own inquiries.

Robert E. Murray, co-owner of the Murray Energy Corporation and the main operator of the Crandall Canyon mine, initially blamed the collapse on an earthquake. Seismologists in the area did not concur.

Government data shows that the Crandall Canyon mine earned 325 citations since January 2004, 116 of them "significant and substantial." In July, a month before the accident, inspectors said the mine violated a rule requiring the maintenance of two separate emergency escape passages in any given workspace.

Yet MSHA notes that this was actually one of the country's safer mines, with fewer fatalities and safety violations last year than the national average.

Phil Smith, a spokesperson for the United Mine Workers union, told IPS that the Crandall Canyon mine was non-union, meaning that the majority of miners there did not belong to a union -- as was the case in Sago, West Virginia, where a collapse in 2006 killed 12 miners.

"The fact of the matter is that there are good (mine safety) laws on the books now, but if you have an owner who doesn't comply with these laws, there's going to be problems," he said. "Also, there needs to be more enforcement of these laws. Crandall Canyon is a good example. The only thing holding up that mountain was a spine of coal, and the mine operator decided that he wanted to mine that spine."

MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere told IPS that the number of enforcement personnel -- including inspectors, inspector trainees, special investigators and field office supervisors -- is 753 for coal mines and 402 for metal and non-metal mines.

"Starting in July 2006, MSHA began an aggressive hiring campaign that will culminate in September of this year with MSHA's coal enforcement personnel at their highest level since 1994," she said.

MSHA is legally required to inspect all mines four times a year, but apparently has cancelled many of these inspections. Since the Utah accident, two other miners have died in falls at mines in West Virginia.

In a Sep. 18 letter to the agency, Rep. Rick Rahall of West Virginia noted that MSHA had failed to carry out its required inspections at both of those mines.

"Conducting inspections is MSHA's most fundamental responsibility, and I cannot fathom what the agency is doing if it is not fulfilling this basic duty," Rahall wrote.

A review last year of MSHA's performance between 2001 and 2005 by Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee cited budget cuts, rollbacks of safety regulations, and reduced fines for mine safety and health violations, and accused the administration of "consistent abdication of regulatory and enforcement responsibilities."

"Since taking office in 2001, the Bush administration has frequently put the interests of mining executives ahead of the safety of miners," Rep. George Miller of California said a statement last month after the Crandall mine disaster.

Besides the ever-present danger of collapses, another concern for coal miners is the threat of black lung disease, a chronic ailment caused by the inhalation of coal dust.

"Respiratory and black lung disease is still the preliminary (safety) problem," said Dr. Jeffery Kohler, assistant director for Mining and Construction at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

"But we are making progress in the fight against black lung disease," said Kohler, who is in charge of overseeing mine safety for NIOSH, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Last year, there were anywhere from 600 to 700 deaths due to black lung (disease), but a few decades ago, the fatality rate was in the thousands," he said. "The problem is that it's difficult to monitor, from shift to shift, just how much coal dust is in the mines."

While state and federal laws have improved working conditions in recent decades, there is evidence that black lung could be making a resurgence. NIOSH reported this week that data from 2005 and 2006 indicate that about 9 percent of miners with 25 years or more of experience show signs of the disease, when that number was just 4 percent 10 years ago.

Environmental groups looking at the bigger picture say that these health problems, as well as coal mining's impact on the environment, could be wiped out in a single stroke.

"Of course the way that the Sierra Club believes best to solve this issue would be the abolition of the coal mining industry altogether," said Ed Hopkins, a mountaintop mining expert with Sierra Club. "But the prospect of abandoning the coal mining industry entirely in the immediate future isn't good because Americans are still so dependent on coal."

John Coequyt, an energy policy specialist for Greenpeace, says the main lesson is that the United States must reorient its economy toward renewable energy sources. Coal is considered the dirtiest fossil fuel, contributing more than oil or gas to the greenhouse gases that accelerate global warming.

"We are behind in our progress in regards to the solar and wind industries. Mountaintop mining affects the quality of the water in the Appalachian states and out west, you have these horrible problems of water becoming acidic due to mining," he said.

"The renewable energy business is booming and is creating all sorts of jobs, such as installing solar panels, and we advocate a massive retraining program of these types of jobs for coal miners who would become unemployed due to the abolition of coal mining," said Coequyt.

Still, the coal industry is thriving, and the region surrounding the Grand Canyon in Arizona is the latest hotspot. An analysis by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) determined that the number of active claims in 12 western U.S. states has increased 80 percent over the past five years.

"More than 50,000 claims have been grabbed up in the past nine months," EWG executive director Richard Wiles and Jane Darowitz of the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining wrote in a recent Washington Post editorial. "The proliferation of claims in Colorado and Utah has been especially high, with a 200 percent increase since 2003."

"There is a general boom in prospecting in the West and a number of Native American tribes looked into prospect mining around the Grand Canyon but they haven't approved any of them for various reasons," said Dr. Saleem Ali, an assistant professor for environmental studies at the University of Vermont and author of the 2003 book "Mining: the Environment and Indigenous Development Conflicts."

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor   September 21, 2007   (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.