At the recent Utah Mine Safety Commission meeting in Salt Lake the commissioners heard from federal land use agencies. Barry Burkhardt from the United States Forest Service explained their role in mining. He is a licensed geologist from North Dakota. He said the forest service analyzes areas in reverse of what they usually do.
In the coal process they determine unsuitable areas for mining. They identify areas as suitable or unsuitable. They get involved with the leasing process in dealing with the impacts of mining at a potential site.
They deal with questions as: Is the escarpment too steep? Are road hazards involved? Is subsidence an issue? What are the affects on fish? The forest service must consent to the lease; they are a partner involved in the leasing stage, but the Bureau of Land Management is the leading agency in the mix.
Once a lease has been issued the next phase is surface resources evaluation. They work to make sure access to the mine is gained with minimal disturbance. Plans are in place for resource restoration when the mining at a site is completed. The forest service develops an environmental assessment for the mine plan. The Department of the Interior has the final approval and the forest service has a consulting role.
They work with the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining as a consulting agency. All connections must be in place and complied with before a mine plan is ever issued. On mine plan ammendments, the forest service is a consultant as the ammendments apply to the surface resource.
The forest service incorporates into their process subsequent efforts on surface recovery after mining is complete. The forest service wants to maintain for multiple use reclaimed mining operations.
Chairman Scott Matheson questioned Burkhardt as to the scope or coverage and extent of responsibility of the forest service in Utah.
Burkhardt said the forest service is involved in the leasing stage and is the surface manager. The BLM gives federal lease approval. "The BLM is responsible for leasing, we don't get involved," said Burkhardt.
Matheson said, "Even though a significant amount occurs on forest service land, the BLM has sole responsibility for leasing? And do you have any interaction with the Mine Safety and Health Administration?
Burkhardt said they have little to no contact with MSHA and they haven't been at a meeting where they were present.
Matheson said the commission's charge is to look at the state's role in mining and assemble information related to that. Matheson asked Burkhardt's opinion on cooperation between entities.
Burkhardt said the last couple of years there has been an improvement in interagency cooperation. He said there is a position being established in Price for a person that works for both the forest service and the BLM. He believes the forest service has good communication with DOGM and the OSM. "We don't have direct ties with MSHA-maybe that is a weakness that should be looked at."
David Litvin, commission member said the forest service is concerned about environmental factors and to assure land access as needed. What review does the forest service do? What safety evaluation is done to ensure the operator does what needs to be done to ensure safety? For example, do they look at human access safety issues.
Burkhardt said they have been looking at that and safety is important. They have been looking at firefighter safety due to a situation where a firefighter died, when he couldn't get out of an area when the fire swept down.
Burkhardt said they try to minimize impacts to an area by shrinking the disturbed surface area. But, the mine operators need room to operate and do it safely.
The forest service also has to look at roadless issues and deals with them as they pertain to mine operations.
Matheson wondered about accident response. He said in the recent Crandall Canyon mine disaster the forest service gave the approval for the bore holes and the access roads to them. The forest service filled a very important role during the disaster. "How well managed is the forest service accident response?" said Matheson.
Burkhardt said calls were made to the Washington office for approval for the necessary steps involved in Crandall Canyon. The environmental issues were waived for the emergency work.
Their objective was to stay out of the way, and be of assistance any way possible. The forest service personnel also monitored the drill sites to keep onlookers out of the way. It was determined that reclamation would be worried about after the event was complete.
Matheson wondered if everything went according to established protocols and can it be improved. Burkhardt said he will check into that and report back to the commission.