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Special report: When a miner dies, does anybody care?

SHARE Special report: When a miner dies, does anybody care?
The lead is being taken, in my opinion, not by government agencies but by individual companies who are saying they are going to comply with the law, keep MSHA happy and do everything they ask for, who say we are going to go beyond that because we don’t want anybody to die or get hurt in our mines. – Mike Nelson, Department of Mining Engineering at the University of Utah

HUNTINGTON — Elam Jones was just 29 when an eight-ton slab of rock crushed him to death and injured his cousin in March.

Men who knew Jones, who know mining, say they don't need an investigation to tell them what went wrong: They blame the investigator, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, for insisting on a mining roof control plan they say isn't safe for Utah mines.

"It's a cookie-cutter approach that is going to get more people killed," said one miner, who spoke on condition his name be withheld to protect his job. "It is a good tool to use, but it is not god."

Interviews over the past five months with miners familiar with Jones' death, multiple industry experts and a review of lengthy investigations probing the 2007 Crandall Canyon disaster reveal that any opportunity for the state to make a real difference in mine safety was sidestepped, left unfunded, and brought little change to one of Utah's most dangerous industries.

The state, which relinquished any of its enforcement oversight in 1988, has adopted a program of mine safety that has no regulatory teeth and has been reduced to a part-time role critics say isn't effective.

The Utah Mine Safety Commission, which rose out of the horror of the Crandall tragedy that killed nine men, has since been disbanded, and recommendations that required any signficant amount of money have been left untouched.

One of the safety commission's recommendations dealt specifically with the state funding research to find out ways in which Utah coal and its deep underground mines differ from Eastern mines.

It never happened.

Those differences, veteran miners say, are being ignored by MSHA's insistence that mine operators use a computer program called ARMPS, or Analysis of Retreat Mining Pillar Stability.

The program, developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, has been widely used for about 15 years, according to the agency, and is considered a reliable design technique when used properly. It was developed from an extensive database of real-life case studies of successful and not-so-successful pillar designs in mining.

But Jurgen Brune, a research professor at the Colorado School of Mines, said the overall basis of the program relies on case studies from Appalachian mines.

"It makes assumptions about the strength of the coal. … It is not a very good tool for Utah mines."

Jones' death at the Rhino Coal Mine in Huntington Canyon, Emery County, marked the first coal mining fatality in Utah since six men were trapped in a catastrophic coal outburst at the Crandall Canyon Mine on Aug. 6, 2007. In that accident, roof-supporting pillars failed, violently ejecting coal over a half-mile area.

Ten days later, two mine employees and a mine safety inspector were killed in another outburst of coal during a rescue attempt.

The original six miners' bodies remain entombed at the Crandall Canyon Mine, which has since been sealed and left idle. Out of the tragedy emerged questions over mine safety and action to determine if Utah was doing enough to protect the lives of miners.

Then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., said he wanted answers and by executive order created the Utah Mine Safety Commission to deliver them and a list of recommendations.

But as the attention over mine safety, public questioning and community support for reforms quieted, no real change happened.

"I think the state as a whole missed an opportunity," said Mike Nelson, chair of the Department of Mining Engineering at the University of Utah and assistant director of the university's Center for Mining Safety and Health Excellence.

On Friday, March 22 of this year, the rock crushed Elam Jones. Five months later, some say that same silence is deafening.

Retreat mining

Like in Crandall Canyon, Jones and his cousin, Dallen McFarlane, were retreat mining when a 10-by-10-foot, 22-inch-thick slab of rock fell from the earthen ceiling.

The process involves excavating a room or chamber and removing the pillars as miners "retreat" so the roof collapses behind the mining area. Pillar removal has to occur in a precise manner to minimize the risk of injury or death to workers.

With Jones' death, it wasn't a pillar that collapsed, but a roof fall.

Veteran miners familiar with the circumstances of Jones' death say the cut sequence was changed because of the ARMPS program, going against what the miners said they know about safe mining.

"There was so much weight, it shifted," one said.

Another miner said the change in the cut sequence resulted in a lack of caves, or the roof falling.

"If you can't get a good cave, that is what causes the rock to override you," said the miner, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

The agency insists ARMPS program has a good track record and pillar design case histories from Western U.S. mines are well-represented in the database. The agency pointed to a statistical analysis by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that shows Western pillars do not differ significantly from Eastern ones.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration's preference for the retreat mining analysis program was stepped up in the aftermath of Crandall Canyon ,and all retreat mining plans at depths more than 1,500 feet were re-examined in the region.

An investigation revealed that while the ARMPS program was used in the development of the roof control plan at Crandall, a flawed engineering analysis by the mining consultants led to an inadequate mine design with unsafe pillar dimensions.

At the time, complaints and questions surfaced over the analysis program and its suitability for Utah mines.

"There were a lot of questions raised," Brune said. "A lot of soul-searching."

Brune teaches ARMPS to his students, as does Nelson. Nelson said ARMPS, LaModel and other computer programs are useful tools to assess a mine design plan, but they have limitations.

"The difficulty I see with these programs is they give an answer, but it is not the answer. When a computer gives an answer, it is easy for people to say, 'That's it, let's go with that.' In the case of a mining scenario, that is probably not the right approach."

Computer as tool

Nelson said computer programs that prescribe and predict mechanical behavior started with NASA and were extended to measure construction materials.

That works fine for homogeneous material such as steel or concrete, Nelson said, but not so much for rock, which has varying strengths and properties.

"I'm not saying it is not a useful tool, it is, but like all computer programs, they only provide guidelines, a starting place that can be used. Local conditions need to be assessed and evaluated on a continuing basis."

The miners said the Analysis of Retreat Mining Pillar Stability program does not take into account the vast differences in Utah coal and the deep underground mines in the state.

"Why are they putting so much faith in a computer program that goes against years and years of mining experience?" one questioned.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration counters that its emphasis on pillar design, ARMPS and other regulatory steps it has taken after Crandall Canyon have notably improved the safety of retreat mining.

During the five-year period from 2008 to 2012, there were just two fatalities from ground failures during retreat mining nationwide, compared with 13 during 2003-2007 and 12 from 1998-2002.

Nelson said high-profile mine disasters like Crandall and the Sago and Upper Big Branch mines in West Virginia have put a tremendous amount of political pressure on the mine safety administration to police mine operators who are not complying with the law, with the citations to prove it.

But this "traffic-cop" approach, Nelson said, also leads to temptation for mine operators to go along to get along when it comes to mine safety and approve, for example, mine design plans that are spit out by a computer.

"It is easy for an inspector to say this is what the computer said, so it is OK," he said. "It makes it almost by default that people go around site-specific solutions that will work so they can comply with the regulations."

While the mine safety administration says ARMPS is preferred, other design methods may be used if the operator can substantiate the results.

Nelson said that's easy to say, but tough to do. He pointed to a New Mexico coal mine where operators wanted a different ventilation plan. He said it took three years to get the approval of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Any deviation from the computer analysis would be as difficult, he said, despite local and unique circumstances that might merit another design.

"The computer program gives you an answer, but it's based on all the assumptions you put into it, and that might change," he said. "I don't think you can confidently use any computer program to manage ground control without having an understanding of the local conditions and being able to respond to them."

He said the federal government uses a regulatory system that has become antiquated.

"What it comes down to, in my opinion, is an outdated approach to managing safety," he said. "They make rules and enforce compliance. They penalize operators if they don't comply to the letter."

Joe Main, the head of MSHA, said he believes mine safety is moving in the right direction.

"There have been a lot of changes since Crandall," he said. "We still have more to do, there's no question about that either, but I think we can arrive at a point in this country where mining deaths are a rarity."

In 1977, the year the Mine Safety Act was passed by Congress, 273 miners lost their lives in the United States. Fast forward to 2011, which was the safest year on record and surpassed by falling fatality rates in 2012.

"What that has told us is we can prevent these mining deaths."

Mine families

Jones came from a tradition of mining. His father, Derk, has worked for 36 years in the mining industry, and his grandfather spent 40 years in mining.

His family knows mining comes with risks. His mother, Julie Jones, said Elam knew he would die in a coal mine and that's how he would have wanted to die.

But Kevin Stricklin, MSHA administrator for coal mine safety, said he doesn't accept the notion that mining is risky and people will die.

"It is an industry that you don’t get many chances. It is heavy equipment, roof falls, ignitions and you got to get it right, not only the first time, but every time. And it is apparent to me that something didn’t go right and a fatality occurred. Our job now is to figure out what happened and make sure it never happens again."

He said none of the dozen coal mining deaths that have happened across the country this year could be described as chance or haphazard.

"Not one of them can I say, 'Well that is just mining and that is just what happens in coal mining.' There are reasons they should not be happening, so I will never take the position that it is dangerous and deaths are going to occur."

Dennis O'Dell, administrator of occupational health and safety at United Mine Workers of America, agrees.

"These deaths are not acceptable. There are thousands of coal miners who go to work every day and come home at the end of their shift safely. If we can do it at certain locations, why can't we do it everywhere?" he said.

"This young man, he was 29. He was a kid. What is the difference between his dad who has had a long surviving career, who has worked OK at Deer Creek and his son, who worked at this operation where he got fatally injured?"

Odell said the sad truth is that regulations come about slowly and generally in response to tragedy.

"Anytime you see any significant changes in mine safety or any improvements, it is because some coal miner had to die to get it done," he said. "To get mine safety changed, it comes with the bloodshed of a miner. It is something that has been really hard for me to stomach."

Changes stalled

After Crandall Canyon, the Utah Mine Safety Commission delivered a set of recommendations aimed at improving mine safety in Utah. That was in January of 2008, just a few months after the Crandall disaster.

The commission chair, Scott Matheson Jr., said in his statement to the governor that if the question of the day was if Utah was doing everything it could to promote mine safety, the obvious answer was no.

"We have learned that the mining conditions at issue are different in Utah compared to anywhere else. We have further learned that our state does about as little as any other state to promote safety in coal mining."

In a state where there is skepticism and criticism over exclusive federal control over local economic activity, Matheson noted that Utah not only lost its role in making working conditions safer, but willingly relinquished it entirely to the federal government.

Utah has a mine certification program, but no formal mine inspection program or any authority to impose safety changes.

In 2008, with the Utah Legislature's passage of the Coal Mine Safety Act, the Utah Office of Coal Mine Safety was established. Initial funding of $250,000 paid for a full-time director, an office worker and a full-time certification program.

By early 2010, that director had stepped down, and, due to financial constraints, the position was reduced to part time and left unfilled until July of 2011.

When Huntsman left office, the Utah Mine Safety Commission was disbanded, despite pleas by at least one member, Huntington Mayor Hilary Gordon, to keep it going.

"The problem all comes back to money, and people are expendable," Gordon said.

Sherrie Hayashi, commissioner of the Utah Labor Commission — the entity in which the Office of Mine Safety falls — said she believes the office remains an effective tool, even if it lacks enforcement powers.

"It is a very different landscape than when Crandall Canyon happened," she said. "We are doing what we are supposed to be doing."

Mine safety director David "Kent" Houghton said he regularly visits Utah's coal mines and meets with the operators' safety departments.

"I am there as another set of eyes and then I report to the Labor Commission."

Houghton, who has an office in Price, said the financial climate has been such that "anything with funding (recommendations) has not gone very far."

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's office said the fiscal downturn that began a few years after Crandall Canyon challenged the state on many fronts, including mine safety.

"Budget constraints were the unfortunate reality of the economic downturn and necessitated some very difficult decisions, including the Legislature's determination to reduce the budget for this office," said Ally Isom, Herbert's spokeswoman.

"In spite of reduced resources, the Labor Commission continues to strive to coordinate coal mine safety among federal and state agencies, industry, and key players."

Critics, however, believe the state's efforts fall short of being effective.

"We had hoped that after that commission that we might get a state mine safety agency that would help mines take a proactive, progressive approach to managing risks and hazards, and it didn’t work out that way," Nelson said. "The support from the state as an entity was not there to make it meaningful.”

O'Dell, who served as a member of the commission, said he remains disappointed in the outcome.

"I think it fell way short of what I would have like to have seen come out of it," he said. "I went in with the impression that we actually wanted to make a difference, but in the end, there had to be consensus from the group."

The commission surveyed 12 other coal mining states and found Utah and Colorado were at the bottom rung for state regulatory involvement. At the time, neither state had state mine inspectors, mine safety regulators or any oversight or enforcement functions.

Critics of robust state inspection programs like those that operate in West Virginia or Pennsylvania argue they duplicate what the federal government is already doing.

Nelson said there may be some truth to that assertion, especially if another by-the-book traffic cop approach is used and operators simply get twin sets of violations.

But O'Dell disagrees.

"I just think it makes sense the more eyes you have looking at mine safety, the more people you have concentrating on it, the more people you have doing inspections, the more people you have talking about it, the better it makes your mine, the safer it makes your mine, but I got overruled," he said. "The state did not want to go back to that."

The Utah way

Last year, after a fundraising initiative led by chief executive officers of two mines in Utah, the University of Utah's Center for Mine Safety and Health Excellence was established.

Nelson said the $1.5 million endowment was the result of mining executives seeing a need.

"After Crandall Canyon, a couple of companies really saw a need to make a change," he said. "We started working to educate the mining industry in Utah and the United States to understand there is a better way to manage mine safety."

That approach embraces safety as not just a goal but as a core value that is incorporated in every step of the operation.

"It can be done. The lead is being taken, in my opinion, not by government agencies but by individual companies who are saying they are going to comply with the law, keep MSHA happy and do everything they ask for, who say we are going to go beyond that because we don't want anybody to die or get hurt in our mines."

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16