Mine safety agency under fire

The government agency overseeing coal mine safety was supposed to have changed its ways after West Virginia’s deadly Sago Mine disaster. Its handling of the cave-ins at Utah’s Crandall Canyon Mine have some worried that the changes didn’t go far enough.

Government officials on Friday indefinitely halted their attempts to dig to six miners trapped since Aug. 6, after a cave-in Thursday night killed three rescuers and injured six others.

House Education and Labor Committee chairman Rep. George Miller and Rep. Lynn Woolsey, both California Democrats, vowed to convene hearings about the disaster “at the appropriate time,” and Utah lawmakers also promised tough questions.

“We’re going to see changes in this industry because of this accident,” said Ellen Smith, owner of the industry newsletter Mine Safety and Health News. “There is no doubt.”

Mine Safety and Health Administration director Richard Stickler had already come under fire for being slow to take public control of the scene.

Even though Stickler’s agency is supposed to be in charge, the mine’s colorful co-owner, Bob Murray, has dominated news conferences, narrated video of rescue efforts for TV news and — despite safety concerns — personally led reporters and family members on a tour of his mine.

The fact that MSHA let anyone, including rescuers, into the still-dangerous mine is raising new questions. Others also predict greater scrutiny of the agency’s decision to allow mining at Crandall Canyon at all, given what it knew about conditions that made the mine particularly unstable.

“Despite misleading and self-serving comments to the contrary … these miners’ lives were jeopardized because of the acts of men,” United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil Roberts said Friday. He expressed doubts about whether MSHA and the mine’s owners “fulfilled their responsibilities” to keep the miners and their rescuers safe.

Three high-profile accidents, including Sago, where 12 of 13 miners were killed, helped make 2006 the deadliest for coal mining in 11 years. The 47 deaths that year triggered sweeping changes to the nation’s coal mining laws.

Observers of the Crandall Canyon accident have criticized MSHA for not heeding a key provision of the new, post-Sago law, which requires the government to be the primary communicator with the mine operator, the media and the public when an accident occurs.

The goal was to prevent a repeat of the confusing and conflicting information that was given at Sago. After anxious hours of waiting for a rescue there, family members were told their loved ones were found alive — only to be told three hours later that all but one were dead.

Observers say they have heard echoes of Sago in the way Murray has upstaged Stickler at news conferences since the first day.

Lawmakers have noted that it took MSHA at least two days to take public control of the scene. Others were irate that Murray was allowed to publicly predict success — and contradict MSHA itself — while agency officials quietly looked on.

For example, Murray has insisted that an earthquake caused the initial collapse, while government seismologists say the ground shaking was caused by the cave-in itself.

“It makes MSHA look bad,” said Tony Oppegard, a former top federal and state of Kentucky mine safety official who now represents miners as a private attorney in Lexington, Ky.

Others have questioned the decision to allow anyone in the mine but those who were absolutely necessary for the rescue efforts. The mine is still experiencing “bumps” — often-violent explosions from the roof, wall or ground that can send rocks and coal shooting into tunnels.

Joe Main, an international mine safety consultant and retired top safety expert for the mine workers union, said Friday that MSHA and the mine operators could have focused more of their efforts on drilling exploratory holes from the top to test for signs of life.

Some critics were incredulous last week when Murray led tours of the mine for family members and a troop of news reporters.

Smith, an 18-year industry observer, said that when she saw news coverage of the tour, she paced around her living room in a fury and eventually wrote a heated editorial. “What were they thinking?” she said in an interview. “It wasn’t safe. The ground’s still moving.”

Her fears were realized Thursday. A bump is believed to have caused the collapse that killed the three rescue workers.

MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said the agency interprets the law to mean that MSHA is the primary — but not the only — source for the media and the families. It can’t stop Murray from holding news conferences or meeting with the miners’ family members, she said.

MSHA has made the rescue efforts its priority, Louviere said. It probably will investigate after the miners have been found. For now, it has included Murray or others from his company in its news conferences.

“I don’t think it would serve any purpose to not work through these issues together,” Louviere said.

Experts think Crandall Canyon will prompt lawmakers to take a hard look at “retreat mining” — a sometimes dangerous technique that causes deliberate roof cave-ins. They are especially critical of MSHA’s decision to allow retreat mining at Crandall Canyon because they believe earlier mining there would have left the roof dangerously unstable.

Industry watchdogs also say they will continue to crusade for better communications equipment that will allow rescuers to track miners and better safety equipment to help in rescues.

Crandall Canyon “certainly is a clarion call that we have to redouble our efforts,” said J. Davitt McAteer, vice president of Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia, who served as President Clinton’s MSHA director. “We run a risk here of returning to the bad old days of mine accidents.”