To the miner let me say that he stands where the farmer does - the work of the world waits on him. If he slackens or fails, armies and statesmen are helpless. He also is enlisted in the great service army. -- Woodrow Wilson, 1917
We may not like to acknowledge it, but Wilson's words are just as true today as they were in the midst of World War I. More than half of the electricity supplied to homes and factories in the United States comes from coal. The miner stands behind your light switch and behind the screen you're using to read these words.
When a coal miner goes underground, he knows he is going into danger. The training that you get on the first day in the mines is designed to force you face to face with the worst that came happen -- dust that can destroy your lungs, dangerous equipment and electrical lines hiding in the gloom, buildups of gas that can suffocate or lead to devastating explosions, and the horrifying idea that the tons of rock above your head might come crashing down.
Against those fears, the miner must trust the people operating the mine. He has to trust that their engineering is sound, that they are monitoring for dangerous gases, and that they've designed the mines entries and panels so that the roof is well supported. He also has to trust the government. Trust that the mine is being regularly inspected, and that attempts to take shortcuts on safety are met with swift, severe penalties that are large enough to discourage repeats of that behavior.
Unfortunately, over the last seven years both those trusts have been betrayed. When the Crandall Canyon mine collapsed last summer, the mine owner swore that he was not responsible.
Scientists at the University of Utah, for example, had initially reported the Crandall Canyon event as an earthquake measuring a magnitude of 3.9, but have since said the pattern was more consistent with a structural collapse inside the mine.
"There is no blame," said [mine owner Bob Murray], who also took time to blast critics of his mine company, Murray Energy, including United Mine Workers Union leaders who he said would like to organize the nonunion Crandall Canyon Mine. "It was a natural disaster."
On multiple occasions, Murray denied that his company was "pulling pillars" at Crandall Canyon. Pulling pillars means removing the coal that supports the roof, and is one of the riskiest maneuvers in mining. It's usually done only when a mine is nearing the end of life, and then only in conditions where engineers are sure the roof will hold up long enough for the operation to be done safely. Pulling pillars in an area where there was known instability would be the worst kind of recklessness. And with awful disregard for his workers that's exactly what Mr. Murray did.
Newly released meeting minutes show that, in the months before the Crandall Canyon mine disaster, its co-owners were dealing with serious structural problems, higher-than-expected costs and subpar coal, but were hopeful that plans approved by federal regulators would get things back on track.
Those plans hinged on extracting nearly all of the coal from the south barrier pillar, the 450-foot-thick coal wall that helped support the roof of the mine, where three months later the walls collapsed, entombing six miners. Three other men were killed in the subsequent rescue effort.
The meeting minutes contain the disruption caused in March by a severe mine "bounce," in which the pressure created by the mountain bearing down on the coal pillars supporting the mine caused coal to explode from the roof and walls.
"The mine started taking bounces and had to retreat the equipment very quickly. There were no injuries and all equipment was recovered out of the area," Crandall Canyon's operator, UtahAmerican Energy, informed IPA officials in a March 21 meeting.
Though Murray has claimed he knew nothing of the earlier collapse, the meeting minutes show that he clearly did. Maybe that's why Murray Energy has fought so hard to keep these notes from being released to the public.
What Murray and his company describe under the word "bounce" is more widely known by the less friendly term . A pillar of coal can stand a tremendous amount of weight, but when a mine is as deep as Crandall Canyon, the massive pressure makes the pillars literally groan under the stress. Cracks form. Curved sheets of coal sheer from the side of the pillar. In the worst case, the pillar literally explodes horizontally from the force, spraying coal into the surrounding entries in the moments before the weight of the roof comes crashing down. Bounce seems far too mild for such an event.
No matter what you call it, the collapse of a section of Crandall Canyon pushed Murray Energy to an area where the coal had a higher ash content. The reduced quality meant that Murray was in danger of losing contracts with electrical generators. To keep their quality up, they had to find a source of better quality coal, and they found it in the pillars holding up the roof at the south end of the mine.
There were no questions raised, according to the minutes, about the safety of going back into the south barrier pillar, but company officials reported that they had worked out a contingency plan with the Mine Safety and Health Administration that would still allow the company to recover some of the coal if they ran into problems with bounces. A federal MSHA spokesman declined to comment on the minutes, citing the agency's ongoing investigation of the disaster.
Why did MSHA approve such a plan? Well for one thing, Murray Energy never informed MSHA about the collapse as required by law. However, that's not the full picture. Months passed between the collapse that took part of the mine, and the disaster that took the lives of the miners. During that time, the Crandall Canyon mine should have been inspected numerous times, and those inspections should have including having an inspector walk every inch of every air course in the mine. If that had happened, the inspector surely would have noticed that the north air course had been blocked in the earlier collapse.
Why didn't MSHA catch that? Maybe it was because under Bush MSHA has been wrecked. Bush placed an executive from Beth Energy -- a company with a miserable safety record -- at the head of the agency. Richard Stickler was such an awful choice for this role, that he was rejected by the Senate while were still in control. Bush didn't care. He's thumbed his nose at Congress and subverted every rule of Senate oversight to ensure that Stickler can continue his work of weakening MSHA. Under Stickler, inspections are down, citations are down, and mining deaths had reached record levels even before the Crandall Canyon deaths were added to the heap.
With the publicity around the Sago Mine disaster in 2006, Bush had promised tougher enforcement and a raft of new safety regulations for underground mining. Republicans rushed through the MINER Act, even though many contended that its safety assurances had no teeth. There is another bill, S-MINER, now pending in Congress to address mine safety in a way that would put serious requirements and penalties in place. What is Bush's reaction to this bill?
The White House on Tuesday threatened to veto a mine safety bill, saying the new regulations proposed by Democrats would interfere with legislation President Bush signed in 2006.
Republicans contend that S-MINER would weaken the (not yet implemented) safety guarantees of the MINER Act. Democrats say S-MINER is tougher. Who is telling the truth? You can get a good idea by who supports each bill. The MINER Act is supported by the National Mining Association, a trade group that includes Murray Energy. S-MINER is supported by the United Mine Workers. Which do you think is looking out for the interest of miners?
When it comes to mine owner Bob Murray, I have to agree with Kossack jlms qkw.
We know that Bob Murray lied from the beginning of the Crandall Canyon disaster. ... We know there are 6 dead miners at the bottom of that mine. ... Now we know that the mine owners and MHSA put miners' safety at risk for the sake of profits. Now we know that indeed, there was retreat mining going on down there thousands of feet below ground. We know how much Bob Murray lied. ... What we don't know is, why isn't Bob Murray in jail on criminal charges ? Where are the lawsuits of the families ? Why isn't Congress clamoring for the removal of Stickler ?
When will 9 dead miners and rescue workers have justice ?
Republicans are fond of claiming that they "support the troops" and Democrats are quick to follow. When it comes to the troops of Wilson's "service army" -- men and women who are daily subjected to danger so that Americans can have heat and light -- they are standing on the front lines, fighting a battle against greed, corruption, and disregard for human life. That's a fight that Democrats at all levels must join.