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Crandall Canyon disaster “preventable,” UMWA's Roberts tells Senate committee

September 5, 2007

In testimony today before a U.S. Senate committee investigating the Crandall Canyon mine disaster last month, United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) International President Cecil E. Roberts said that, "This disaster was not an act of God, but an act of man. It was preventable."
Roberts said that the Crandall Canyon disaster "began on June 3, 2007, not August 6, 2007, because June 3 is the date when the mine operator submitted to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) a plan to engage in retreat mining at Crandall Canyon." Roberts also said that MSHA's best chance for saving the miners "was on June 15, not August 6 or 7. But when MSHA approved the Crandall Canyon mining plan on June 15, that chance was lost."
Roberts questioned why the retreat mining plan was submitted and approved even when the previous operator had declined to do that kind of mining because of safety concerns. "Because extensive longwall mining had been done on both sides of the main entries (where the collapse occurred), there can be no doubt that the mountain over the mine was exerting extreme pressure on the remaining coal, which was supporting the mine roof. Murray Energy was extracting that very coal."
Roberts said that MSHA violated the recently passed MINER Act in its response to the disaster by surrendering its role as "chief communicator" in mine incidents and allowing mine operator Robert Murray to dominate the information stream that went out to the general public. This is especially troubling because much of the information Murray gave over national television and other media was wrong.
"The effect has been that millions of Americans were given incorrect and misleading information right from the start of this disaster, and MSHA allowed it to happen," Roberts said. Among other incorrect statements, Roberts cited Murray's assertion that the event was an act of God even though Utah seismologists concluded the activity registered on seismographs was the result of the mine collapse.
Murray also said that there had not been any major incidents at any of his mines prior to Crandall Canyon, however four miners have been killed at Murray-operated mines before this event. "Any time a miner is killed, that is a major incident, whether Mr. Murray wants to believe it or not," Roberts said.
Roberts also reiterated his call for a change in the pro-company culture at MSHA that has existed under the current administration. "MSHA is charged with protecting miners, period," Roberts said. "There is nothing in any federal mine safety legislation that says MSHA should be helping companies operate more efficiently or at a lower cost. But that's exactly what the agency has been doing over the last several years. The result is more hearings like this one and more legislation written in the blood of coal miners."

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