Sunday, August 19, 2007

Miners and rescue heroes buried in mine owners' scramble for profit

THE search for six coal miners trapped underground at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah was halted on Friday after two rescue workers and a federal mine inspector were killed by crumbling tunnel walls. Six more rescuers were injured.

After eleven days of efforts to get through to the six men, trapped 1,800 feet below ground, it was time to tell their families and friends that they might never be found. “People here are just sick in the stomach about all of this,” said Joanne Carpenter, whose son was good friends with the son of Dale Black, a killed rescuer. Joanne had been with other local people, waiting for news.

Dale Black was a cousin of one of the trapped miners, Kerry Aldred.

About 130 people had been involved in the rescue. When some requested to reassigned from inside the mine because it was too dangerous, other volunteers offered to help. Hopes had been raised in the town by news that sounds could be heard from inside the mine, but then at 6.55pm on Thursday an entire rib, or wall, of the mine collapsed on the rescuers.

Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, issued a statement saying the deaths at the Utah mine were “needless and preventable.”
A union spokesman, Phil Smith, said that the plan to mine the mountain should not have been approved by the federal government, and that the rescue effort “should not have moved forward because the mountain was in the process of collapsing and was clearly dangerous.”

The director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, Richard E. Stickler, said that the strongest available support structure had been put in place to protect the rescuers, including fencing and steel buttresses, but that “obviously it was not adequate.”

The governor of Utah has promised to conduct an “unprecedented and comprehensive” investigation of the disaster and rescue work and to seek to improve mine conditions in Utah and throughout the country.

The mountain has been experiencing seismic jolts since the start of the assignment. Seismic specialists at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City have recorded 22 readings of earth movement at the site since the original magnitude 3.9 shock.

"These events seem to be related to ongoing settling of the rock mass following the main event," Lee Siegel, a spokesman for the University of Utah seismographic station, told the Associated Press. "I don't think I'm going too far to say that this mountain is collapsing in slow motion."

Mine owner Robert E. Murray had promised the trapped miners would be brought out within a few days. "We’re going to get them,” he said after the mine collapse, “There is nothing on my mind right now except getting those miners out". Murray, whose Murray Energy Corp., based in Cleveland, Ohio, part-owns and manages the mine, claimed the original mine collapse was caused by an earthquake and that dangerous mining procedures were not to blame. But seismologists said that what their instruments had recorded as an initial quake was the mine collapse.

Murray has been an outspoken opponent of mine safety legislation as well as environnmental laws. After last year's Sago mine disaster in which 12 men were trapped and killed in West Virginia, he opposed legislation by lawmakers there and in his home state of Ohio that would require miners to wear emergency tracking devices. Murray called the proposed legislation "extremely misguided" and accused politicians of "playing politics with my employees' safety. "

Before the mine collapse, the mine owner was well known as a staunch detractor of global warming. "The science of global warming is suspect," Murray told the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in June.
"Climate change or the so-called global warming issue is a human one," he said. "Reducing carbon emissions will impact our poorest families worst. All you are doing with this Draconian legislation is destroying American families' standard of living, their ability to have jobs, and export jobs to China."

This boss who is so concerned about protecting jobs is not so keen on protecting miners, whether by law or unions. He made his earthquake claim to deny reports that the mine accident was a result of a dangerous procedure called "retreat mining", in which pillars of coal are left holding up the roof while the coal around them is removed, before the pillars themselves are excavated. "Retreat mining had nothing to do with the disaster," Murray said, . … There are eight solid pillars where the men are right now. … I'm not going to respond to retreat mining anymore. It was invented by people with motives to damage the coal industry."

"The UMWA is trying to organize the mine," Murray said by way of explanation.

Workers at the Crandall Canyon mine do not belong to a union.
The UMWA said it represented workers at six mines owned by Murray, but now only represents one. "He is a difficult guy to deal with on a rational basis," Phil Smith, the union's spokesman, told reporters. According to the Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration, the mine had a record of 300 safety violations, of which 118 resulted in injury. There had only been one death at the mine in the last 12 years.

For more on this disaster from a union angle see:

Here's another union response:
Former Mine Workers Head Calls for More Worker Safety Attention After Utah Disaster
By Pat Kinney, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa

Aug. 16--WATERLOO -- Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO national secretary-treasurer and former president of the United Mine Workers of America, called the federal mining safety regulatory agency a cadaver Wednesday and accused President Bush's administration of inattentiveness to all worker safety issues in the wake of a Utah mine collapse.

Trumka, UMWA president from 1982 to 1995, when he was elected to his current post with the AFL-CIO, made his comments following a keynote address to the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO state convention in Waterloo Wednesday.

"You know, honestly, MSHA, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, has become basically a cadaver under George Bush," said Trumka, who mined alongside his father in Pennsylvania before becoming a labor leader. "It's not about enforcing the laws or making them better, how they can get by. MSHA inspectors are good quality people, but they don't get the support from the leadership in MSHA. They put people in who have no identity with miners."

"We were strengthening the laws under (President Bill) Clinton, getting some regulations passed" Trumka said, but those initiatives died or fell by the wayside when Bush took office.

Of the Aug. 6 Huntington, Utah mine collapse, where the search continues for six trapped miners, Trumka said, "Here's one thing: It wasn't an act of God. It was an act of man. One of two things are inevitably true. Either they weren't following the laws or the laws weren't strong enough to protect them. In either case, there's got to be changes made to protect workers.

"Now here's the real travesty," Trumka continued. "Workers in this country die in ones and twos every day. Miners die in ones and twos every day. And no one pays any attention. Thousands and thousands of workers are injured and crippled every day and no one pays attention. It's only when there's a mass major disaster that it gets the attention. Each day is a tragedy when you lose a worker or cripple a worker or rob a worker of his or her health.
"This administration is not enforcing the mining laws in this country as they should. I think it applies to every area of workers' safety," Trumka said. "I think it applies to OSHA (the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration) as well as MSHA."

A report from West Virginia public radio says mine owner Roberts' methods have attracted attention before in that neck of the woods, along with his boasts that with his influence he could fend off any interference from safety inspectors:

In 2001, a belt foreman named Tom Ciszewski had his arm ripped off by a conveyor belt at Ohio Valley Coal’s Powhatan No. 6 mine in Belmont County, Ohio. He bled to death.Later, a belt repairman testified that Robert Murray pressured miners not to shut down the belt, "unless there’s a man it," and that he would fire them on the spot. A judge ruled the company was not negligent. But problems at the mine continued. Eventually, MSHA ordered the mine to shut down after repeated violations. Murray had enough. He was upset at MSHA’s action, and met with Tim Thompson, then the head of MSHA’s District 3 office that covers a portion of Ohio and northern West Virginia. Back in 2003, Jeff Young of West Virginia Public Broadcasting obtained the notes from the meeting: Jeff Young 2003 report: Those notes show Murray repeatedly threatening to have MSHA employees fired. ‘I will have your jobs. They are gone. The clock is ticking," Murray said at various points. And he stressed his political influence with the agency, saying, "I talked to Laresky (former MSHA director) personally," and again, quoting, "Mitch McConnell calls me one of the five finest men in America, and last I checked he was sleeping with your boss.’ Sen. McConnell of KY is married to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who oversees MSHA.

See also: Utah Mine Owner Used Repub Political Clout To Get Rid Of MHSA

It seems this Roberts has been a big donor to the Republican Party, and expects to get his money's worth. Here in Britain, though all three main parties have been competing to find ways of soliciting big money from business, he'd most surely find a home-from-home with the Tories, now David Cameron's bike riding greenery has given way to John Redwood once more raising the banner of deregulated capitalist "free-for-all" (but not free trade unionism of course).

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At 11:29 AM, Blogger Peter Cummins said...

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