Part III: Coal Mine Safety conference
Mike Dmitrich spoke at the first annual Utah Coal Mine Safety Conference. Dmitrich has a history rich in coal mining. His father was killed in a coal mine. Dmitrich recently retired from the state senate where he spent 40 years in the House Of Representatives and the State Senate. He was on the Utah Mine Safety Commission formed by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. after the Crandall Canyon mine accident.
Dmitrich spoke about the mine commission and their role in addressing safety. He said they heard from everyone who had anything to do with mining during those commission meetings. One of the controversies in the mine commission was whether or not to have state mine inspections. The state of Utah abandoned mine inspections in 1987 and left that enforcement to the Mine, Safety and Health Administration. In Carbon and Emery counties there are 17 federal inspectors for eight mines.
The legislature only appropriated $240,000 to run the Utah Office of Coal Mine Safety. At the recent special session of the Utah Legislature they tried to remove $100,000 out of their budget, but that money was restored.
Dmitrich said the commission didn't want to create another state agency, so the coal mine safety office is within the Utah Labor Commission. Garth Nielson is the director of the newly created office. Dmitrich said, "People need to use the office and to call Garth and let him know what's going on. If a mine plan needs modification, the state office needs to be aware of that and offer input. Garth can review those plans. The office also has a toll free hotline number for the reporting of safety hazards where the caller can remain anonymous. Garth has been to the mines to meet with miners and he wants the miners to feel comfortable with him so they can take any concerns to him without repercussions."
Dmitrich referred to Brett Harvey's testimony before the mine commission about zero accidents. Harvey gave an excellent presentation about mine safety and how it is handled at Arch Coal.
"Utah has a good safety record. We had an excellent example of communication between agencies at Crandall Canyon. Everyone needs to stay involved. We need to work to ensure the ongoing funding for the Office of Coal Mine Safety," said Dmitrich.
Nielson introduced Emery County Sheriff LaMar Guymon who spearheaded the communications and the handling of Crandall Canyon and also the Wilberg Mine fire. Guymon said he has an awe and respect for coal miners. "It is important we do all we can to continue this industry," said Guymon. When he first became sheriff he had a staff of three and due to energy production in the county the monies have been there to now staff a fully trained office of deputies. Guymon said during his 34 years as sheriff he has had a lot of experiences. He handled the Wilberg Mine Disaster and he said they had no real understanding of what to do and what they needed to do it with. At Crandall Canyon the communication was much better. The role of law enforcement is to protect lives and property, keep order and to maintain the law. With Crandall Canyon part of their role was to respect private property which belonged to the mine owner. Certain perimeters were set-up and those perimeters were enforced throughout the disaster. The property was secured from the bridge to the mine. The families were secured first at the senior citizen center, Canyon View Junior High and as school started the families were moved to the Desert Edge Christian Chapel.
Guymon said he has very good men working for him and he assigned them to where they would fit in the best and that is where they stayed throughout the mine disaster. Sgt. Les Wilberg was assigned to the families and Capt. Kyle Ekker was assigned to the command post. Pastor Clapp helped with interpretation with the Spanish families.
"We tried to take into consideration the state of mind the families were in and act accordingly. We kept order as best we could. We found out the senior citizen's center didn't work, there was no way we could secure it, so we moved the families to the junior high. They were fed there and Huntington City jumped in with meals as well as local businesses donated meals to the rescue miners and the families.
"After a time the Red Cross and Salvation Army came on scene. The Red Cross helped with the families and the Salvation Army set up at the command center at the bottom of the Crandall Canyon road," said Guymon.
Guymon said it is important to establish contacts and meet people from the various organizations long before you have an emergency. A time of stress is not a good time to form relationships. Guymon said he didn't know who Bob Murray was but he did know a lot of the people who worked in and around the Crandall Canyon mine. He said it was so good to see a familiar face during that uncertain time.
"In law enforcement we spend a lot of time preparing for things that never happen. The morning of Aug. 6, 2007 at 4 a.m. I received a phone call saying there was a cave-in at Crandall Canyon and the initial response was to send an ambulance and a deputy to see what was going on. The response escalated from there. It is important to have training exercises. Even if it is just tabletop exercises. You need to take training exercises very seriously. At Crandall we immediately set up the command center which we purchased with grant money. It became a gathering place for the media and it was where the press briefings were held with MSHA and mine personnel. A satellite system was set up so we would have communication. A man I know from Channel 2 had a contact at Verizon so he called them and we almost immediately had a portable cell phone tower on site for cell phone use and it remained there until we left a month later.
"The media at the command center worked pretty well. We need education on how to handle the news media. They will report something, they will tell the story even if they have to find someone on the street to talk to. Bret Mills our communications guy, set up satellite service on the mountain so the news media could have internet service. We worked out a system for anyone who was allowed up to the mine site, there was also a list on who was allowed into the families. The EMTs stayed onsite at the mine from the beginning to the end. We had a full crew there at all times.
"You always get people who think they know more than you do. You always listen to them and then just stand up and take charge. We received a letter from Deer Creek Mine and they wanted us to go to their mine and meet their people and get to know them.
"We need to spend more time training miners. It's a mistake if we don't keep training and retraining. Sometimes people just don't want to spend the money. We were able to get a grant to put the Code Red system in effect in the county. We can call everyone in the county in the event of an emergency. If you are a coal mine, you can give us a list of the contact people we should contact in an emergency and we can notify all those people in a matter of minutes. We need to do a better job of preparing for these incidents. You will be judged on how you handle it. We all have a responsibility in a disaster. Every incident is different. Everything has to be taken into consideration, training and communications. Disasters will happen. Regulation is the key, but over regulation destroys everything. We need to keep coal mining premier in our communities. Everything in these communities will be impacted if coal goes away," said Guymon.
Nielson said his coal mine safety office is totally involved in emergency preparedness and to have the state and all its resources available for use in a quick and organized manner. Nielson mentioned a recent training at Dugout mine which he appreciated. The coal mine safety office worked hand in hand with the hospital and the safety team from the mine. Nielson is going to spend time going from mine to mine and collecting their emergency response plans. Some of the plans are very basic and some elite, but he is going to familiarize himself with each plan.