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Congressman: Utah mine collapse appears a 'preventable tragedy'

  • Story Highlights
  • Relatives of Utah miners voice anger with company that owns Crandall mine
  • Miners were concerned about safety but afraid of losing their jobs, relatives said
  • Family members accuse MSHA of not doing enough to regulate the industry
  • Miners were trapped in August 6 cave-in; rescue efforts found no sign of men
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Relatives of the six dead Utah miners told a House committee Wednesday that their loved ones were victims who had voiced safety concerns prior to the August 6 collapse.

The company that operated the Crandall Canyon mine in central Utah valued "production over safety," said Cesar Sanchez, brother of miner Manuel Sanchez.

Manuel Sanchez, who had been a miner for 17 years, had asked for a meeting to discuss his safety concerns, his brother said, without elaborating.

"He said the mine safety was not right," Cesar Sanchez said.

Sanchez was among four relatives who testified that those who died in the collapse had been concerned about mine safety, but were reluctant to push too hard for fear of losing their jobs.

Sheila Phillips, mother of miner Brandon Phillips, said she has had little closure because her son's body has not been recovered.

"It's just hard to have hope and have your heart broke everyday and to watch your grandson grow up without a dad," she said. "I just miss him." Video Watch relatives describe their loss »

The wife of another miner, Dale "Bird" Black, who died in a rescue attempt at Crandall in mid-August, also spoke. She said her husband told her he was afraid to go to work late in his career because of safety issues.

The House Committee on Education and Labor held the oversight hearing ahead of plans to introduce legislation aimed at the families' complaints, said Rep. George Miller, D-California, the panel's chairman.

Miller criticized the federal agency in charge of mining safety and the owners of the Crandall mine for failing to cooperate in the committee's probe.

The collapse appeared to be a "preventable tragedy," he said.

"In late August, we requested a comprehensive list of critical documents and communications from both Murray Energy Corporation and the Department of Labor to help us with our independent investigation," Miller said. The department oversees the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA.

"I regret to say that neither the department nor the company has been fully cooperative with us to date. They have yet to comply with many of the basic requests for information," Miller said.

The Department of Labor has created additional problems by cutting staff, hiring officials from the coal industry, failing to move decisively to require miners to be provided modern wireless communications and underground rescue chambers, and failing to track mine operators' compliance with rescue plans, he said.

Family members accused MSHA of not being vigilant enough about regulating the industry, and of failing to keep families informed after the disaster. Instead, mine co-owner Bob Murray, CEO and president of Murray Energy Group, took the lead for several weeks.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who testified in the afternoon, said it became apparent after the cave-in that MSHA had no clearly defined lines of decision making.

"There was a lack of defined authority and coordination," Huntsman said. This caused "weeks of excruciating, and I think possibly needless, uncertainty regarding their loved ones," he said of the families.

Steve Allred, brother of miner Kerry Allred, said miners at Crandall were involved in "retreat mining," a dangerous practice in which pillars of coal holding up the ceiling of a mine are destroyed in an effort to dislodge more coal.

Murray conceded after the disaster that there had been retreat mining at Crandall, but said that practice was not being implemented during the cave-in.

He argued that the original event was caused by an earthquake rather than mine activity, but seismologists at the U.S. Geological Survey said the collapse itself registered on seismographs as a 3.9-magnitude earthquake.

Allred, a 27-year mining veteran, told the panel there weren't enough pillars in the mine to support it, "and yet they wanted to pull those pillars out."

Allred said owners submitted plans for the operation to MSHA, which took only 12 days to review and approve them. Afterward, there were several underground seismic bounces, or bumps, one of which -- in March -- was so strong that miners fled the mine.

The men were trapped early August 6 when mine walls collapsed. It is not known whether they survived the initial cave-in.

Richard Stickler, director of the mine safety agency, announced September 1 that there was "no remaining hope" of finding the men.

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After drilling seven holes into mine tunnels from the mountaintop above, there was no sign of the men -- and no sound was picked up on microphones. Tests showed that underground oxygen levels were too low to sustain human life.

The Crandall mine was non-union, but Cesar Sanchez expressed frustration that the United Mine Workers had been barred from participating in the investigation. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About Crandall Canyon MineMine Safety and Health AdministrationUtah

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