The Utah Mine Safety Commission met recently in Salt Lake for their fourth meeting since being formed by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. Commission chairman, Scott Matheson said they have not reached a point yet of making any recommendations to the governor. The commission will continue to hear from witnesses and keep an open mind. They will look at all the information in a careful and measured way.
Matheson said the purpose of this meeting was to hear from land management agencies to see the role they play in the mining industry. The first scheduled presenter was the Bureau of Land Management and Matheson said they had notified him on Friday they were not going to appear. Matheson said they had testified in Washington and he will look forward to the time they can present to the mine safety commission.
The State and Institutional Trust Lands was the first presenter. Thomas Faddies, assistant director of hard rock and industrial minerals, said he has a 39 year mining career and was educated in Utah colleges. He spent the first part of his career in the industry and the next years as technical support and energy management, and mine supervision. He joined SITLA nine years ago as the assistant director of minerals. He said SITLA's management style is to use outside consultants because they will never be able to afford to hire experts. In SITLA all of the minerals are, generically speaking, managed nearly identical. He said many mining companies are mining on SITLA leases. These coal leases include the Book Cliffs and the Wasatch Plateau. The Dugout mine, SUFCO, Westridge, Energy West, and others are mining in SITLA leases. The Crandall Canyon mine also had SITLA leases. There are a number of unleased coal tracts including the Cottonwood tract, Book Cliffs and Fremont Junction area and the North Horn tract.
SITLA has large blocks of coal acquired with the land exchange from the creation of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. The state has managed school trust lands since statehood. When production targets are met the land reverts to federal. There are federal regulations governing the lease of lands. The BLM is the lease operator. SITLA doesn't have the technical skills needed for the governing of the leases so the BLM was assigned that responsibility. They govern these leases on forest service, BLM and SITLA lands. Coal and other minerals are leased on a royalty basis. The lessee submits plans of operation to SITLA. The Division of Oil, Gas and Mining is the regulatory agency for the approval of mine operation plans. Operations can't commence without DOGM approval.
Matheson asked Faddies about SITLA approval of mine plans and what that means. Faddies said SITLA is interested in the resource and recovery and the economics of the leases. One fear they have is when an operator puts a lease into production the cash must flow to the beneficiary, (SITLA). When prices are up then that is easier. The BLM completes the evaluation of the tract and the geological resource to see what the recovery might be. The forest service looks at the plan to see if there is enough resource there to support a mining operation. They also look at the access issues to the mining site. SITLA doesn't have any contact with the Mine, Safety and Health Administration. The operator has those contacts with MSHA. This is the system used for all types of mines on SITLA lands.
Faddies said they rely on the BLM for the technical advice. They rely on consultants to advise them on those matters.
Matheson said he has seen in BLM reports that the BLM had some concerns about the Crandall Canyon Mine. Matheson wondered if the BLM had contacted SITLA about any of these concerns.
Faddies said they might or might not contact SITLA. SITLA tracts are inspected the same as any federal tracts. If something were amiss then SITLA would like to receive a call from the BLM. SITLA doesn't review mine plans from a safety standpoint. Other agencies have the responsibility to do that.
Matheson said they are trying to get a good feel for what the state's role should be in the mining industry. He wondered what SITLA's role could be and if they would take a more active role. "Do you see a potential role," asked Matheson.
Faddies said the short answer is that SITLA should not go there. He believes safety is everybody's responsibility and that primary safety is up to the operator. Utah did have a mine safety agency in the past and Faddies believes it is better handled by the feds. Faddies said he has been in regulatory and mine operation work for many years and MSHA has always been the agency responsible for the regulation of safety and he continues to believe that's the way it should be.
Matheson said from information Faddies has presented that SITLA's primary mission is the recovery from operators on SITLA land, but in terms of BLM; they do react with MSHA, in the course of a review, if red flags show up do people talk about it? Are systems in place to take care of that or are there ways to make it better?
Faddies said, "Is there enough communication? I don't know, there are cases where more communication might help. Sometimes it's a deterrent to getting things done."
Faddies said trainees, apprentices and new workers need to have someone they can go to with their concerns. There needs to be oversight. Some people who work in the mines are similar to people in the military; they might be risk takers. They need good supervision. Miners need to depend on the technical support staff if they don't have an idea of what the pillar configuration should be.
Faddies said when he first started in mining he didn't have any idea how the pillars should be. He just hoped the rock mechanics knew their stuff....and it goes right up the line. The responsibility for safety is all through the layers. Mines are interesting. For years people have told me that open pit mines are more unsafe than other mines. I didn't believe that, but both people are right. You need to work as a team; your actions can kill an entire shift. Open pit is easier to keep out of harms way. You can walk around traffic. Nobody except God could watch out for everybody every second and keep people safe. It's no different than an infantry assault. We can't accept accidents in mining. Nobody wants anybody hurt. No one working across the state, no foreman wants anyone hurt. Safe mines are productive mines. How does the boy get help? Call MSHA. If someone calls SITLA we would call MSHA and tell them a problem had been reported. It wouldn't do any good for a SITLA man to check; they aren't qualified.
David Litvin, commission member said their efforts lie in making sure a Crandall Canyon never happens again in the future. We still don't know what led to the tragedy there. When we look at the safety system, MSHA is primary for operator safety. Is the system done properly or is it in need of repair?
Faddies said it would be good to talk to operators to get that balanced look. In his experience he said the system works. The world is changing rapidly. When he first went to work at Park City there were four people there with college degrees. The last mine he worked out had 200 employees and 100 of them with college degrees.
Supervisors need to look out for their employees safety. Skilled experienced workforces that receive ongoing training is essential. Looking to the experienced miners for guidance is productive. Faddies said an emphasis needs to be placed on research for locating miners in accident situations.
Litvin asked Faddies if he sees an increased role for the state with safety programs. Faddies said at one time he had two supervisors who could never get in sync. He thinks one agency works best. He cited the explosives industry and how when you have a number of entities regulating something, then nobody regulates it.
With MSHA all explosives must be labeled with signs of a specified dimension. The Bureau of Alcohol and Fire Arms says don't label the boxes because then people tend to shoot at them. So when MSHA is here they go down and put the signs on the boxes and when the bureau shows up they take the signs off. So how to store explosives depends on the regulatory agency. "I wasn't impressed when the state had mine inspectors," said Faddies.
Faddies said the state of Utah should lead in establishing training programs. Part of the training is generic and part is site specific. The mine operators need to be partners. Faddies said in talking to the BLM they are having trouble finding a mine geologist. Education is important especially in dealing with the training of young people. Faddies said he did things when he was young that he wouldn't do now that he is older and that's something you can't train for. A man was killed at the face by a burst, and simply put the man wasn't standing behind the safety equipment. You can't regulate that, you can't solve it. Twenty years ago, I didn't wear a seat belt, but I do now. I think the answers lie in education and training and improving the system in place now.
Sen. Mike Dmitrich said he thinks a mine plan should really be looked at before it could be modified.
Price Mayor Joe Piccolo wondered how the state could be involved in a mine plan change after it's been implemented several years.
Faddies said someone submits a mine plan originally and it is gone over quite thoroughly. Things change, maybe the faults aren't where the geologists predicted. Are modifications getting the scrutiny of the original plan? Probably not. Modifications should be reviewed by technical people. MSHA reviews mine modification plans, Utah doesn't have anyone that does this.
Dennis O'Dell, commission member said the BLM was aware the bumps were increasing in Crandall Canyon. Sometimes more supervisors compliment each other. More eyes for miners can be beneficial. This is a great opportunity for the state to take the lead. If the BLM had the authority and the information on Crandall Canyon had been made available then we may not be sitting here today.
Faddies said he respected O'Dell's position and the commission's job is to sort everything out.