When the members of the Utah Mine Safety Commission convene in Price today for the third meeting of the governor's hand-picked panel, they plan to hear from people who, like the Huntington families affected by the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster, have a vested interest in coal mining in eastern Utah.
The meeting will be the second time in two weeks that the commission has solicited comments from the public about mine safety and the future of mining in the Beehive State. Today's meeting is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. at the College of Eastern Utah, in the Jennifer Leavitt Student Center Alumni Room.
Last week's meeting in Huntington drew emotional remarks from community members who expressed their concerns about the often hazardous conditions in which miners work. Six miners were trapped in the August collapse at the Crandall Canyon Mine, and their bodies were never recovered. Three rescuers died several days after the collapse while trying to reach them.
But the Huntington residents at the last hearing also talked about the appreciation that current and former miners have for their chosen vocation.
"That's the life blood of the community, has been forever since the 1900s," said Utah Senate Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, who sits on the eight-member commission.
Residents of the mining towns "want to make sure that there is a safe working environment, so that miners will be sure to come home at night," he said. "Safety is number one before a ton of coal is taken. Safety is probably one, two, three, and then the mining fourth." He believes that increased safety training and education will be among the recommendations that the panel will forward to the governor after hearing from residents and retired mine workers.
One resource that might help is a center that the state helped set up this past summer with the College of Eastern Utah. The Western Energy Technology Center eventually will provide custom safety training for individual mine operations.
Dmitrich said once all the mine owners can reach an agreement with the state on training and education programs, the facilities at the center are ready and available. Some additional state funding might be required to get the programs up and running, he said, but the amount would probably be small, since most mines pay for their own training.
Dmitrich also said that regulators must make sure the mine safety plans are tailored to the needs of individual mines. The approval process and the modification of mine plans also needs better oversight, he added. Those modifications occur when mine operators determine that initial mine safety plans need specific changes in order to make the process of mining the coal in a particular mine safer.
Commenting on the concerns about job security voiced by Huntington residents at the last mine commission meeting, Dmitrich said, "They want to see the jobs stay there because they're high-paying jobs, between twenty and thirty bucks an hour."
He said his family has been involved in mining for generations. Despite the dangers of mining, it has provided economic security for communities like Price. But Dmitrich knows that safety concerns are paramount — he lost his father and and grandfather in coal-mining accidents.
"Accidents will happen when you have that much moving machinery and that much over-burden on you," he said, referring to the potential for mines to collapse.