Technology exists today that can significantly reduce the risk of mining coal, even in Utah, where many of the mines are much deeper below ground than in the eastern United States, according to Michael Nelson, chief technical officer with Palladon Ventures and associate professor of mining engineering at the University of Utah.
Nelson's comments came Monday before the Utah Mine Safety Commission, which met at the state Department of Natural Resources. Nelson's presentation focused on modern mining methods and the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster. A collapse at the mine this past August trapped six miners, and their bodies were never recovered. Three rescuers died several days later trying to reach them.
At one point during his testimony, Nelson became emotional and choked back tears.
"It's difficult for me when I talk about people being killed underground, because of the time I spent and the many friends I have still working underground. I just don't like to think about anybody dying in those conditions," Nelson said. "We have enough resources and wealth and skills in our country and our society that it should be very rare that anyone gets killed at work, whether it's in a mine or anywhere else."
Nelson said the results of theoretical research should be tested in realistic situations to ensure the chosen methods will work in practice.
"There are mines that in many ways are similar to Crandall Canyon now where we could go and install different types of instruments to take measurements ... and learn a lot more than we currently know about those conditions," he said.
Nelson also suggested public-private partnerships like those currently in use in Australia, where government agencies and mining companies collaborate to conduct research and pool resources to develop cutting-edge technology. The end product is more efficient mining and mineral processing in a safer environment, he said.
Other speakers at the commission's fourth hearing spoke about how best to monitor safety within the mining industry. Previous meetings were held in August at the Western Energy Training Center near Helper, last month in Huntington and two weeks ago in Price at the College of Eastern Utah.
The eight-member commission was created following the Crandall Canyon Mine accident and is charged with reviewing the state's role in mine safety, as well as accident prevention and response. The panel will make recommendations to the governor regarding Utah's role in those areas.
Although some states have their own regulatory agencies, Tom Faddies, assistant director of minerals for the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, advocated having just the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration oversee all mine safety in Utah.
"It puts sole responsibility on that agency," said Faddies. "The responsibility for mine safety has been handed to MSHA. That's who should continue to handle it."
He added that state agencies could aid MSHA in its mission, but limiting bureaucracy streamlines the process of regulation, which should help expedite investigations and result in getting answers in a more timely fashion.
Faddies also recommended that the state put more emphasis on training for workers in the mining industry, as well as improved oversight.
"A supervisor in that mine has got to be able to depend on this technical support staff," he said. "(Miners) have to depend that the rock mechanic who designed the pillars (in the mine) knew their craft."
Faddies said the responsibility for safety runs across every layer of the mine operation up through management to the head officer of the company.
Utah Mine Safety Commission chairman Scott Matheson said he was pleased with the input received at the hearing.
One of the key messages was "having a stronger Western voice when it comes to mine safety," he said. "That goes to training, to the inspection process itself. It just goes to the way we think about all these issues, and I think that came across loud and clear today."