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Utah senators push mine study

Retreat coal mining at great depths would be examined

WASHINGTON — A $1 million federal study on retreat and pillar mining could be on its way, if an amendment proposed Friday by Utah's Sen. Orrin Hatch and Sen. Bob Bennett is approved.

While it is not clear if retreat mining played a role in the accidents at the Crandall Canyon mine in August, the tragedy has brought more discussion of the practice to Capitol Hill. The Aug. 6 mine collapse trapped six miners, and their bodies were not recovered. Three rescuers died several days later trying to reach them.

In retreat mining, also know as room-and-pillar mining, pillars of coal hold up an area of a mine's roof and then are removed to cause intentional collapse once the area is completely mined. The practice can be profitable for mine operators, because it allows access to the coal in the pillars. But experts have questioned the safety of the method.

The amendment would direct the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services, to partner with the University of Utah and West Virginia University to conduct a study on retreat coal-mining practices at depths 1,500 feet and below, which are common throughout Utah, according to Bennett's office.

Hatch said that while there has been considerable research done on coal mining in the United States, the vast majority of the research has addressed Eastern mining issues.

"Western mines, especially those in Utah, have distinct characteristics that cause unique safety concerns," he said. "It is my goal to ensure that deep mining like the kind we do in Utah is done in as safe a way as possible. And for that, we simply need more research."

Bennett pointed out that Utah's "unique geological circumstances" make mining challenges different than those in any other state.

"After the tragic events at the Crandall Canyon Mine this summer, it became clear that more information was needed about deep mining operations," Bennett said. "It is my hope that this study will provide a thorough examination and come up with ways to make it safer for everyone involved."

The study will examine the conditions necessary for retreat coal mining, including the depth of the mine, strength of the roof, pillars, and floor, and the susceptibility of the mine to seismic activity.

The amendment requires a report by October 2008, with recommendations on how to improve safety for retreat miners working at depths greater than 1,500 feet. The report also would include information on the conditions under which retreat mining should take place and ways to improve technology for miners working in such extreme conditions, according to Bennett's office.

The Senate will likely consider the amendment Monday or Tuesday as part of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations bill now on the Senate floor.

Also on Tuesday, the Mine Safety and Health Administration is scheduled to hold a public hearing in Salt Lake City to hear comment on proposed changes to a federal rule regarding mine rescue teams and their training and equipment. MSHA wants to amend the existing standards to reflect advances in equipment and technology.

The Salt Lake hearing will be held at the Little America Hotel from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., and residents are invited to comment. The hearing is the first of four that MSHA plans to conduct across the nation.