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Answers sought at mine hearing

Senators want to make sure families get better treatment

Cesar Sanchez, whose brother, Manuel Sanchez, was killed in the Crandall Canyon Mine accident, listens to testimony on D.C.'s Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
Cesar Sanchez, whose brother, Manuel Sanchez, was killed in the Crandall Canyon Mine accident, listens to testimony on D.C.'s Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
Lawrence Jackson, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Mining families deserve better treatment from the government in the wake of the Crandall Canyon Mine accident, senators said Tuesday as they discussed communication problems among federal agencies regulating the mine before the tragedy and management of information during the aftermath.

At a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing, the committee's chairman, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., wanted answers on why the Mine Safety and Health Administration allowed a mining plan to go through when there were problems at Crandall Canyon. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, said she plans to introduce legislation to give better assistance to families in the event of another accident.

At least 30 family members representing eight of the nine people killed in the Crandall Canyon Mine collapse sat in the audience. They wore white ribbon loops secured to lapels and dresses with a pin of a pick ax crossed with a shovel and name tags showing their relationship to those who died in the accidents.

Six miners were trapped and their bodies were never recovered after the Aug. 6 mine collapse in Emery County. Three rescuers were killed days later while trying to reach them.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration and the United Mine Workers of America said late Tuesday that some Crandall Canyon miners have opted to designate the union as their representative in the accident investigation.

Although the Crandall Canyon Mine was a non-union mine, UMWA spokesman Phil Smith said the union agreed to serve as an "independent voice" for the workers as the investigation continues.

Under federal law, two or more miners can designate a representative on safety issues. Smith declined to disclose the names of the miners who decided to have UMWA represent them.

The union acted in a similar capacity for miners after the 2006 Sago Mine accident that killed 12 miners in West Virginia. The International Coal Group, which owns the mine, sued — and lost — a case objecting to the union's involvement, even attempting to bar union representatives from going onto the mine property.

At the congressional hearing Tuesday, Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's administrator for coal mine safety and health, said the agency did not know about some previous problems the mine had before the accident, and a federal investigation will have to determine where evaluations and reviews of the mine failed to turn up problems that led to the collapse.

Kennedy could not understand why MSHA did not know of problems in the mine despite Bureau of Land Management warnings before the collapse.

"This is like the CIA not talking to the FBI when we are getting attacked by terrorists," Kennedy said, referring to reports by the BLM that parts of the mine should have been sealed because "conditions were deteriorating."

Stricklin also found himself having to explain why a graduate student was involved in reviewing documents that led to the approval of Crandall Canyon's mining plan. Stricklin said the student had the first look at the plan, but a supervisor did later work.

Murray expressed concern about communications during the rescue effort. She said she is working on the Mine Disaster Family Assistance Act of 2007 to establish clear lines of communication in the aftermath of a future mine accident.

The bill would create a mine accident communication plan modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board's policies following plane crashes. The measure outlines how families of victims would receive information.

"We need to do more to make sure that if there is a mining incident, they have access to accurate and consistent information from government officials," said Murray, who criticized mine operator Bob Murray's press conferences after the Crandall Canyon accident.

The senator said miners' families deserve better than hearing life or death information "from the nightly news." Her bill would create a director of family support services at MSHA who would be a point-of-contact for all families during an emergency so that they would get information first.

The bill would also ensure that MSHA "remains the primary communicator to the mine operator, press and public and bears primary federal responsibility for rescue and recovery operations." Mine operators would also have to submit a plan on how they would handle families in the event of an emergency.

NTSB managing director Joseph Osterman told the committee that NTSB has an Office of Transportation Disaster Assistance with staff members who are trained in victim recovery and identification, mental health and emergency-response operations.

Stricklin said MSHA has no specific plan or staff in place that can give support to family members after an accident, and the MSHA employees who were sent to work with the Crandall mine families had geology and engineering backgrounds.

Family members in the hearing room Tuesday did not want to talk to the media, although five, along with Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., will testify before the House Education and Labor Committee today.

Sonny Olsen, a Utah attorney who is representing some of the families, said the hearing was "very, very difficult" for them. At least one widow left the hearing midway in tears.

"These people are still grieving," Olsen said. But they thought that coming to the hearing was worthwhile, he added, because "they are starting to see some accountability."