Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Crandall Canyon, The King of the Mountain , The Fox in the Coop

A rumble a loud crack, like thunder, rocks, dirt and chocking dust rain down.
A rock fall is imminent. So what is a miner to do?
"You run for your life," said Tim Miller, who toiled in Kentucky's mines for more than two decades.

... The goal is to eliminate the coal industry. Of course the goal is to eliminate the coal industry. Coal is filthy. It destroys ecosystems to dig it up. It kills the people who work around it. Coal plants throw particulates in the air and causes respiratory ailments. They throw mercury in the water and causes birth defects. They throw CO2 into the atmosphere and cause global warming. The coal industry corrupts the political process. It lies to the public about global warming, and mine safety, and coal reserves, and everything else. It leeches money and opportunity out of the states where it is based.
The only reason we think of coal as "cheap" is that we don't tally all those costs in the debit column.
From David Roberts Coal is the enemy of the human race...

During the winter of my fourteenth year I had a part time job. Every morning I would get up at 5 o"clock and walk up the hill to the ancient brick home of an elderly widow where I would descend to the dimly lit basement and remove the previous day's supply of clinkers from the firebox of an equally ancient and frightening looking furnace, shovel in a supply of fresh coal and get a good fire roaring. That was it, home to shower and head to school. She payed me two dollars a day and in 1958 when a gallon of gas was a quarter, that was a good sum of money. That is also the sum total of my life's experience with coal.

David Roberts wrote the brief but engaging piece quoted above earlier in the summer at Huff Post, he wrote his rant in reference to a coal industry mogul who for several months had been preaching to anyone who would listen about the evils that congress, in league with environmentalists, were plotting to perpetrate on the coal industry. I had heard the name of the subject of his rant before but at the time I didn't recognize it.

It wasn't until two weeks ago when a mine in central Utah's Emery County in Crandall Canyon, one of the deepest coal mines in the country collapsed, burying six miners 1500 to 1800 feet below the surface and 3 1/2 miles from the entrance point, that the name and the reason the it rang a bell popped back into my mind.

Robert Murray. The name was familiar because I had read a Washington Post article about his testimony before a congressional committee in the spring in which he took congress to task over the Clean Air Act of 1990 and declaimed on the perils of listening to the purveyors of Global warming science, which he has since referred to as "global goofiness." (as quoted below in the New York Sun)

"Some wealthy elitists in our country," he told the audience, "who cannot tell fact from fiction, can afford an Olympian detachment from the impacts of draconian climate change policy. For them, the jobs and dreams destroyed as a result will be nothing more than statistics and the cares of other people. These consequences are abstractions to them, but they are not to me, as I can name many of the thousands of the American citizens whose lives will be destroyed by these elitists' ill-conceived 'global goofiness' campaigns."

2007 speech to the New York Coal Trade Association

Robert Murray is one of two people that you would recognize from the nearly non stop coverage of the aftermath of the cave in, the repeated rescue attempts, and the ensuing tragedy upon tragedy when the rescuers themselves were caught in another collapse killing three and injuring six others.

Murray, is the most recognizable, at times seen castigating the press or the unions, at others in the mine, pointer in hand, explaining the rescue operation to the media, or as seen below. Murray is the owner and CEO of Murray energy which is among the dozen largest coal mining companies in the country. He owns 19 mines in Ohio and Illinois including the Crandall Canyon mine and others in Utah. In general, Murray's operations have a far less than stellar reputation for safety, having over the years, been cited thousands of times for safety violations and fined millions of dollars. Murray says that the safety violations were trivial and included violations such as not having enough toilet paper in the restroom.

Murray claims that the Crandall Canyon collapse was caused by an earthquake, seismologists dispute his claim saying that the seismic activity they recorded was the result of the collapsing mountain not the cause of it. The head of the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colorado said that an analysis of seismic waves that occurred in the area around the time the mine collapsed are consistent with what would be seen from a mine collapse, and, subsequent seismic activity that has been detected may have been related to energy being released in the aftermath of the collapse,

However its probably easy to guess which side of this question the insurance companies will land on.

If Murray has no love for environmentalists and federal regulation, he also has no love for unions and all but one of his mines are non union, a fact that probably is responsible, in large measure, for the dismal safety record. In a union atmosphere, union stewards and safety committees can report violations without fear of retaliation from management. In a non union mine reporting safety violations or unsafe practices and working conditions place the individual miner at risk of losing his job, or worse, for speaking out. This often results in an atmosphere of fear in which such conditions are overlooked, placing lives at risk.

Murray is also a serious donor to Republican candidates for office, having bequeathed over $150,000 to such notables as George Bush, Mitch McConnell, Katherine Harris and Sam Brownback among others, in the last couple of years through his Murray Energy PAC and other affiliates. This may help to explain the accommodating way he has been treated by federal regulators.

The coal in the Crandall Canyon mine is removed by what is called the room and pillar method where digging and removing coal creates a cavity or room and large pillars or columns of coal are left standing to hold up the roof which is further augmented by drilling and setting roof bolts. It is believed by many that at the time of the collapse the miners were engaged in retreat mining in which the pillars are removed and the roof is allowed to collapse as the workers retreat back to the entry.

Although considered to be a very dangerous undertaking, the mine had the necessary permits for performing retreat mining from Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) according to Robert Friend who told the Washington Post that the cause of the collapse had not yet been discovered but, "there was retreat mining where these miners are." Asked about the conflict with Murray's denials that the retreat method was in use he replied, "I can't speculate as to what he meant."

Some, including Utah's Governor are calling for an investigation focusing on why those permits were granted in this instance and UMW says that the MSHA has been too cozy with the industry in recent years.

There are whispered reports (it's a good idea to lower one's voice when criticizing mine owners or their operations in central Utah) that the Crandall Canyon mine was unsafe when Murray bought it last year. Not wanting to leave behind any of the coal contained in the pillars they began the retreat mining operation. A spokesman for UMW, Phil Smith, said yesterday, "No one took the time to see that it was a recipe for disaster.

The graphic depicts retreat mining in a room and pillar operation like Crandall Canyon.
The pillars are mined from the farthest point towards the entry and the mine is allowed to collapse as it will.
Wanna try it? I'm sure the image above is a much more orderly depiction of the process than the reality.

Though it may seem strange to people outside the coal industry, generations of miners have been cutting away those pillars to increase coal production in a practice known as retreat mining. It's legal and considered standard procedure. But it has claimed the lives of 17 coal miners in the past seven years.

In Kentucky alone, four miners have been crushed in rock falls during retreat mining in the last 14 months.

"You're definitely playing Russian roulette," said Miller, now an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America, which spells out in its contract that members can withdraw from any section of mine they believe is unsafe. "You remove those pillars, the roof is coming down. It's inevitable."

Retreat Coal Mining Comes Under Scrutiny

Which brings us to the second recognizable figure from the coverage of these horrible events, Richard Stickler the Mine Safety and Health Administrator who waited two days after the mine collapsed before taking control of the rescue efforts, a delay that reminded some of "Brownie" and Katrina.

Stickler is a former mine executive and manager whose confirmation for the position was turned down twice by the Senate.

Richard Stickler

The injury rates at coal mines Stickler managed from 1989 to 1996 were double the national average, according to statistics assembled by the Mine Workers before Stickler's appointment to head the Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety.

During his confirmation hearings, Stickler said he believed the then-current mine safety laws were adequate and did not need strengthening. This spring, when coal mine deaths stood at 33?at the time the highest number killed on the job in a full year since 2001. Congress passed legislation to strengthen and improve mine safety.


In spite of fierce opposition from both Democrats and Republicans as well as the United Mine Workers, George Bush made the appointment last October during a congressional recess.
The Fox was now in charge of another regulatory chicken coop.

The federal government's power to regulate the activities of business is among it's most sacred duties to our citizenry. The regulation of the purity of our drugs and our food, the safety of our workplaces, the safety and reliability of manufactured products, ranging from what we wear to what we drive is a responsibility that is as critical to our social health and civil order as defense. In this area, as in so many others, this administration has not only dropped the ball, they have thrown it to the opposing team.

From a candlelight vigil held in Huntington last week, focused on the six coal miners trapped in the Crandall Canyon mine. Photo by Trent Nelson Salt Lake Tribune

"We are at the mercy of the officials in charge and their so-called experts."
Sonny Olsen, Spokesperson for the families of the trapped miners"

As I was about finish and post this article I received this Email from John Sweeney, AFL-CIO President. The timing was spooky, but he wrote the perfect postscript to what I wanted to convey here. So I'm going to use his remarks as my close, Take it Mr Sweeney:

Dear Robert,

As you may already know, the underground rescue operation to save the six coal

miners trapped in the Crandall Canyon Mine has been halted. Tragically, the miners may be buried beneath the Utah mountain


At this difficult time, I ask you for your thoughts and prayers for the miners and their families, as well as for the families of the three rescue workers who gave their lives trying to save the missing.

I also thank you for being someone who cares enough to take action to improve life for working

families on many fronts.

Last year, after 12 coal miners died in the Sago Mine in West Virginia you helped convince Congress to pass the first major overhaul to mine safety laws in more than three decades, the MINER Act.

Since the Bush administration came into office, it has been systematically dismantling workplace safety protections. But you wouldn't allow corporate greed and Bush administration neglect and indifference to go unchallenged.

That neglect and indifference haven't been isolated to workplace safety. Just look at our economy workers' paychecks are stagnant while our productivity goes up and up. Just think back to the

administration's catastrophic response to Hurricane Katrina, the poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the nation's crumbling infrastructure, our health care crisis; many, many people are wondering,What's wrong with America?

Fortunately, in our democracy, every four years we have a chance to fix what's wrong by electing

leaders, including a president, who put working families first. We have a very busy time ahead of us, fighting together for health care, good jobs and the freedom to form unions without employer interference and fighting for a government led by people committed to make America work for

working families.

Thank you for all that you've done so far in this fight and for all you will do in the months ahead.

In solidarity,

John Sweeney

President, AFL-CIO

P.S. What do you think the next president should do to make our workplaces safe and healthy? Please share your thoughts on our AFL-CIO Working Families Vote 2008Forum.

Related Stories and Links:

Columbus Dispatch

Two For The Money

The Salt Lake Tribune

Memo shows mine already had roof problems in March

I See Dead People

A sincere thank you to Marty Kaplan and David Roberts

Bob Higgins

Worldwide Sawdust