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Front Page » February 19, 2008 » Local News » Hearings on Crandall Canyon mine Part XXII
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Hearings on Crandall Canyon mine Part XXII

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Mine Commission to make recommendations to Gov. Huntsman

Scott M. Matheson Jr. was the chairman of the Utah Mine Safety Commission. He issued the following statement at the submittal of the report to the legislature and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. He said the Utah Mine Safety Report is a consensus document. Behind that consensus is a lot of hard work based on information from many sources. Members of the commission did not represent just one or two views. Each of the eight commissioners on the Utah Mine Safety Commission developed his or her own views, and the consensus we achieved was not easily reached. When the 45 recommendations were adopted, most of them received strong unanimous support. As for others, some commissioners strongly supported them and others harbored misgivings. But, a sense of practical compromise and commitment to improving coal mine safety in Utah forged consensus.

Second, the commission's information on state safety inspection was not one-sided. The many industry speakers who appeared before the commission were opposed to state inspection, and they made some good points, However, the rest of the record was more balanced. For example, Prof. Robert Ferriter from the Colorado School of Mines, in answers to a commission questionnaire submitted to him by Sen. Orrin Hatch, explained the benefits of state inspection. So did leading Mine Safety and Health Administration officials, as well as Mike Dalpiaz of the United Mine Workers, who also testified that many Utah coal miners were reluctant or intimidated to appear before the commission and give their views. The chair of the commission's technical advisory committee, Prof. Kim McCarter suggested a potential state role in the independent review of roof control mining plans for unusually challenging mining conditions if certain technical and procedural issues can be resolved. The commission through law student research, received helpful information on other states' programs.

As, the chair, I tried to keep issues on the table, to conduct an open process, and to keep an open mind. My goal for the commission was to study the issues and then to propose practical and constructive steps that would lead to greater safety in Utah coal mines. I think the commission has succeeded. It is now up to the policy-makers, the governor and the legislature, to move these steps forward. In that respect, I would like in the balance of this statement to share my views on immediate priorities, most of which are consistent with the commission's recommendations.

The governor asked the commission to study the role of the state in coal mine safety, accident prevention, and accident response. In the aftermath of the Crandall Canyon tragedy, the governor asked us to answer this question: is the state doing everything it should be to promote mine safety? I think the answer is no.

I came into this study with the traditional Utahn's skepticism of exclusive federal regulatory control over local economic activity and working conditions. The commission confronted the unusual circumstance in Utah coal mining where the state not only lost its role in trying to make those working conditions safer but also willingly turned it over entirely to the federal government. We have learned that the mining conditions at issue are different in Utah compared to anywhere else. We have further learned that our state does about as little as any other state to promote safety in coal mining. We were asked to assess this situation in light of nine people dying in a horrible coal mine tragedy. And we were asked what the state can do to improve safety for coal miners in an industry that will continue to provide jobs for families in Utah's coal country and to supply the state's energy needs.

First, the state should establish an Office of Coal Mine Safety because we need leadership, efficiency, and accountability in implementing coal safety measures, including those recommended by this commission. Dispersing the measures we are recommending among multiple state agencies is not only ineffective but potentially wasteful of taxpayer dollars.

Second, the state and MSHA should initiate an innovative state-federal partnership for approximately the next 12 months and perhaps longer. This Utah-MSHA partnership will enable state officials to participate in the inspection and the mine plan approval processes, learn first hand the safety steps MSHA has taken since the Crandall Canyon tragedy, and determine how the state can reinforce and supplement, not duplicate, MSHA's safety efforts in Utah's mines. This collaboration should enhance safety in the short run and answer whether a continued partnership or a separate state inspection agency would be best for the long run, in either case achieving the benefits of the "additional pair of eyes," MSHA officials have promoted. I believe this approach is more sound and responsible than reflective support for or opposition to a state inspection agency. I have explored this approach with MSHA officials, who have responded positively to the partnership idea.

Third, I think the legislature should seek input on a state inspection agency from a larger and more diverse source than our commission. The commission received evidence on both the strengths and weaknesses of MSHA, but we are not and never were adequately staffed to make a thorough assessment of MSHA operations in Utah. The legislature should determine whether a state agency could effectively supplement rather than duplicate federal efforts, in part by implementing a risk-based approach to focus attention on factors such as safety record, depth of cover, bump or bounce history, and gas levels. Although I think a state-federal partnership will be more efficient, effective and creative in the short run rather than trying to jump-start a state inspection agency, the state's policy makers should become more actively engaged in this dialogue.

Fourth, the state should immediately institute a coal mine safety ombudsman alert system. This system would allow any person, especially miners, an opportunity to report any safety concerns through all available communication channels. To encourage candor, there would be strict legal protections that guarantee the privacy and confidentiality of the person making the report. The ombudsman would investigate and, when appropriate, act on such reports by taking concerns to any private or public person or entity, including MSHA and coal operators, who can address the concerns.

Fifth, the state should implement an independent technical review process for mining plans that propose operations under unusually challenging conditions in Utah, provided further consideration by technical advisors can develop workable criteria and efficient procedures to trigger such a review. We know enough about the Crandall Canyon experience that mine plan approval was the critical oversight process in addressing the safety of the barrier pillar mining operations. If the technical issues can be addressed, it is incumbent on the state to assure the miners and their families that objective and independent scrutiny of the proposed mining plan has occurred.

Sixth, the state should support the seismic monitoring proposals from the commission and its technical advisory committee. We have a unique opportunity to move toward individual mine seismicity monitoring and eventually have the advanced tools for situational awareness and risk assessment that have been in place at underground coal mines in other countries for years.

Finally, the research, education, training, and certification proposals in the report are critical to meet the immediate workforce safety needs and long term employment and safety issues in the Utah coal mining industry. They deserve serious attention from the legislature in the 2008 general session.

I close by thanking Gov. Huntsman for the opportunity to work on this important issue and by thanking my fellow commissioners. I have enjoyed working with all of them and commend them for their public service. Finally I want to extend my deepest continuing condolences to the families of the victims of the Crandall Canyon tragedy. Your extraordinary losses touched our hearts, and our work on the Utah Mine Safety Commission has been dedicated to you and your loved ones' memories.

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February 19, 2008
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