PRICE — Tuesday's tragedy at the Willow Creek Mine is just the latest in a long series of problems at the troubled mine.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in Washington, D.C., said the mine has been cited for 615 violations since October 1996, totaling more than $140,000 in fines. Nearly one-fifth of those violations were for accumulation of combustible materials.
Davitt McAteer, assistant secretary of labor for MSHA, said that is a substantial number of violations for any mine.
Between September and November 1998, the mine was cited 31 times for methane violations. That happened just prior to a large fire on Thanksgiving that same year. No one was injured in the blaze, but mining operations did not resume for more than a year.
Mike Dmitrich, a spokesman for RAG-American Coal, said most of the problems in the mine are technical. He said the mine has always had methane problems.
The problem is finding ways to control it.
"We have been working closely with MSHA to solve those problems," said Dmitrich.
According to Kim McCarter, a professor in the University of Utah's Mining Engineering Department, methane reaches explosive levels at 5 to 15 percent. MSHA gives citations if levels exceed 2 percent.
"This is a difficult mine," said McAteer. "This is a mine that has many problems in terms of its geology. Its a very difficult mine to mine in."
In a large mine, according to McAteer, an inspector can find a whole series of violations. "The kind of violations tell us more than the number of violations," he said.
In Willow Creek's defense, McAteer said the company has made efforts to stay in compliance.
"They should get credit for purchasing and using up-to-date equipment. However, that is still a substantial number of violations," he said.
McAteer said MSHA worked very hard over the past year to prevent explosions in the mine. He said he is very concerned about the Willow Creek incident because it is the first death resulting from an explosion in a coal mine in the United States since before he took office in 1993.
"Our country suffered through explosions in the 1900s. Thousands of miners were killed. We've been able to restrict and eliminate that for the most part. So we are extremely concerned about any kind of explosion of dust. We are concerned about the conditions that led to that," said McAteer.
McAteer expected a crew of investigators from his office to have a preliminary report on the explosion completed in a few days. However, he did not expect it to have a lot of information. He said the final report will probably take some time to complete.