Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Nevada Gold Miner Missing in Ground Collapse

More than 3 weeks now since Crandall Canyon, and no good news. MSHA, the state and Congress have announced their investigations.

This morning the Times-News, Twin Falls, Idaho, reports a Nevada gold miner is missing after a ground collapse:

ELKO, Nev. - An unidentified miner is missing after a ground failure at the Getchell underground mine occurred about 2 a.m. Tuesday at Barrick Gold of North America's Turquoise Ridge Mine near Golconda.

According to Lou Schack, Barrick's director of communications and community affairs, the miner is an employee of the contract firm Small Mine Development....

The miner was operating a bolter - a piece of equipment that drills and installs rock bolts used to stabilize areas where mining occurs - when the ground failed, said Schack.

The bolter was partially buried by debris, said Schack.

Mine Safety and Health Administration representatives are on site and managing the rescue effort.

There are two underground mines on the site - Barrick employees work the Turquoise Ridge operation and SMD runs Getchell....

...the similar to a recent event at Newmont's Midas Mine. Dan Shaw, a loader operator, was killed June 19 when he and his loader fell roughly 100 feet following a ground failure.

Thirteen days later his body was recovered in an MSHA-led operation. That accident remains under investigation....

Hoping for the best.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

No Good News

The Salt Lake Tribune reports:
HUNTINGTON - The fifth borehole drilled in search of six men trapped in the Crandall Canyon mine showed the worst results yet - a near-complete cave-in within the main escape tunnel.

A mere six inches exist between the ceiling of the mine and tons of rubble
While in China,
Desperate efforts to save 181 Chinese coal miners from two shafts flooded with water and mud face near impossible odds, as a safety official says mine owners failed to anticipate the threat of disaster...Rescuers face more than 12 million cubic metres of water mixed with 300,000 cubic metres of mud and coal in the main shaft, the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) estimated on its website.

MSHA has taken charge of family briefings at Crandall Canyon:
"[Murray]told [members of one family], 'Well you've lectured me twice. I don't want to hear from you anymore either,'" Jackie Taylor said. Taylor said Mine Safety and Health Administration head Richard Stickler apologized to the families, and that he and Emery County Sheriff Lamar Guymon asked Murray not to participate in any more family briefings.

This again exemplifies why Congress in the MINER Act last year directed the federal agency to take the lead in communications with family members and media during an emergency. At Sago, the problem was different but the principle was the same. Personnel at many mine operations are not trained or prepared for these aspects of handling an extended emergency, which in most cases, thankfully, will never arise at that operation. Part of MSHA's regular job is to remain prepared for these emergencies.

Questions continue regarding MSHA's approval of retreat mining in the operation.
Had federal regulators known about the March collapse, maybe they would have denied the request. Or maybe not. Industry analysts say the MSHA under the Bush administration has a reputation for catering to mine operators by emphasizing production over safety.

That may or may not be the case under Richard Stickler. I hear mixed reports, including opinions from at least some current MSHA employees that Stickler is a good safety man who was leading the agency in a helpful direction. At the same time, however,
the mine workers union and others say Stickler has failed to change the climate at MSHA from one of "really coddling mine operators," said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, which opposed Stickler's appointment and is calling for an independent investigation of the accident.

"What we're not seeing is a change in culture," Smith said. "I think the Crandall Canyon incident reflects that."

It's not hard to predict that Congressional committees will hold multiple hearings into this latest tragedy and possibly other aspects of safety. Whether MSHA will be left to conduct a regular accident investigation, followed by an internal review, before those hearings take place, is an open question.

If it was necessary to predict, I would guess that MSHA will likely be subject to some additional form of oversight during the investigation, possibly public investigative hearings as at Sago, Congressional investigative hearings, or some kind of unique partnership arrangement with another investigative entity. Mr. Stickler's tenure when his term as a recess appointee runs out, I would say, is also in grave doubt.

These predictions are not a pre-judgement on Mr. Stickler, still less on the MSHA staff. I am keeping an open mind on the actions of MSHA's decisionmakers before the Crandall Canyon collapse. I worked with, and greatly respected, some of the people who are currently in the MSHA chain of command, and would find it difficult to believe those former colleagues were negligent on safety in any way. But I think Congress may have no choice. When very bad things happen, significant changes follow and heads, most often, roll; that is so in the corporate world no less than in government.

I would hope that professional MSHA accident investigators be permitted to do their part of the job, with additional public scrutiny of the process, rather than having the investigation of the accident taken entirely out of their hands. Coal mining is specialized enough that outside investigators working alone would be at a severe disadvantage. The investigation into MSHA's own role at the mine before and during the accident is generally separate, but whoever does that also needs to have specialized knowledge.

Meanwhile, family and friends said goodbye to one of those former colleagues, mine inspector Gary Jensen:
[Secretary of Labor Elaine] Chao [Mr. Stickler's boss] said he exemplified the best qualities of MSHA workers by never hesitating to risk his own life to help save another. "He reaffirmed what is best in the human heart," Chao said. "Like those at 9/11, he rushed in, a selfless hero, to help others. He is the best the country has to offer."

And at the same time,
...unnoticed, all across America, in the hollows of West Virginia and the mountains of Kentucky, in the hills of southern Illinois and the gorges of Montana, tens of thousands of coal miners in this country have quietly continued to do what they do 365 days a year: quarry the depths of the earth for the billions of tons of coal that create more than half of the nation's electricity.

The Chicago Tribune story is well worth reading in its entirety.
Work that started after Sago continues. On technology, as another manufacturer announces an approved wireless communication system for underground coal miners in West Virginia,
Rajant Corporation, a leading provider of portable, reliable, and adaptable wireless networking solutions, announced today that its BreadCrumb® wireless system has been approved and listed by the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Health, Safety and Training (WV OMHS&T) for use by mining permit holders.

and NPR explores the possibilities of robot miners.
Robots can go where humans dare not tread: down debris-strewn corridors filled with flames and noxious fumes. Engineers envision robots acting as the modern-day version of the canaries that were once lowered into coal mines to check for poisonous gasses...

The biggest obstacle, though, is cost. The original research project was federally funded, but that money has dried up

And Crandall Canyon has apparently given the necessary impetus to Pennsylvania's effort to update an antiquated mine safety statue.
Shortly after the Utah mine collapse on Aug. 6, Gov. Rendell issued a statement saying he would make passage of a new mining law a priority this fall, and the chief sponsor of a long-stalled mine bill is prepared to introduce a more comprehensive bill this fall.

Meanwhile, mine operators and union negotiators, often at odds over regulations, say they are working toward agreement on controversial provisions contained in that phone-book-size bill.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

"Evil Mountain"

As hope wanes, the Salt Lake Tribune reports:
The operator of the Crandall Canyon coal mine says no one will be going back into the tunnels where six men have been trapped since Aug. 6.

That means the bodies of the miners may never be recovered.

"I told (the Mine Safety and Health Administration) it is an evil mountain, it is alive, and I will never go back there," Robert Murray said today.

Two weeks and two days. Too long.
" is alive..."

So it must seem to some -- almost as if an active malice was frustrating every attempt to reach the missing men.

And yet, everyone knows that the rock mechanics of mining -- especially at great depth -- are not entirely predictable. Even with modern geological knowledge, what miners find underground always remains to some extent, an unknown quantity.

That's why even in routine mining, miners and mine managers have to be on the constant alert for signs of developing problems. They make regular safety examinations, write down their findings, scrutinize and correct problems. If signs show that a roof control plan is not working as intended, they update it. At least, that's how it goes under prudent safety practices and existing requirements.

In a non-routine situation, unpredictability is worse. Supports can go down like a line of dominoes -- and either quickly or gradually -- as rock stress shifts with every succeeding collapse.

Jerry Tien, a mining engineering professor at the University of Missouri-Rolla:
"That area, geotechnically, it's pretty challenging, we all know that. But the people who are mining there are also pretty experienced," Tien said. "You make a professional judgment and things turn out to not be what you think."

Once the full investigation begins, a key question will be the plan.
Robert Murray insists that his company did not change the mining plan at Crandall Canyon after purchasing a joint interest in the mine last August.

But documents obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune clearly contradict Murray's assertion, and show that Murray's company sought and received approval from federal regulators to make a significant, and, experts say, risky change to the mining strategy.

Records of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) show that, after Murray acquired a 50 percent ownership in the mine on Aug. 9, 2006, his company repeatedly petitioned the agency to allow coal to be extracted from the north and south barriers....

Work in the north barrier progressed until March, when the mine suffered a major "bump" - a jolt in the mine caused by the pressure of the mountain bearing down, often causing the roof to fall in, floors to heave or coal to explode from the support pillars.

That incident still doesn't show up in MSHA's publicly available database.
The March bump damaged tunnels over a span of more than 700 feet, and prompted mine operators to abandon their retreat mining in the northern barrier. Instead, they asked MSHA for permission to mine the south barrier...

MSHA approved the plan relatively quickly.
...Murray's company...asked MSHA to approve a change to the mine plan on Nov. 11, 2006. MSHA officials spent just seven business days reviewing the request before approving the mining in the north barrier.

I'm not prepared to cast blame at this point. There are too many aspects that need evaluation: besides MSHA's judgement at the time, changes in mining conditions that came later, actions after those changes, and whether the mine was complying with the plan.
Also worth looking into: after the three major accidents in 2006 (Sago, Aracoma Alma, and Darby) MSHA investigated its own operations and reported that the offices responsible for the those mines were short of specialists in fields like mine ventilation and electrical systems. The agency had moved many specialists into regular inspectors jobs, and the remaining specialists sometimes cut certain corners in an effort to keep up with the work load of plans requiring approval. This may not have been a factor at Crandall Canyon, of course; it's just one of many questions to be asked.

I also want to say one thing about the inspector who was killed. He last visited the mine in May and found no roof problems, the Tribune reported. I hope no one is jumping to the conclusion that he should have found violations, in light of the accident that folowed 4 months later.

From a roof control point of view, 4 months ago is a very long time. By the date of the accident, the active mining area would have moved a long way -- likely thousands of feet, I would imagine. Conditions may have changed radically. Practices may have changed also. Mine personnel are responsible for scrutinizing the mine systematically for potential hazards several times a day because the workplace changes constantly and in ways that are not always predictable. A "clean" roof inspection at a given time says nothing about how it will be 4 months in the future.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

MSHA's "J" Order Option

We now know the identities of all three of the Crandall Canyon rescuers killed Thursday. The Salt Lake Tribune ( reported:

"The victims were identified Friday as Brandon Kimber of Price, Dale Ray Black of Huntington and Gary Jensen, a federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspector in the agency's Price office. Five other miners and a second MSHA inspector were injured."

MSHA's directory shows that Gary Jensen was a roof control specialist in the Price, Utah, field office. Other news stories have given his age as 53.

Deepest sympathies to the families of the lost rescuers and also to their colleagues and friends in MSHA and the industry.

The Tribune story continued: "Stickler earlier said it would take almost three weeks alone to set up the drill rig and a couple of weeks to bore the sizable hole [for a rescue capsule to descend into the mine].

"Given the circumstances, however, 'we've talked to Mr. Murray and the company that they need to get moving in this direction,' Stricklin said, noting there is a capsule reasonably close to the mine."

In emergencies, ideally the mine operator, MSHA the state mine agency and any labor organizations involved will work closely together. MSHA typically issues a control order under section 103(k) of the Mine Act, which leaves the mine operator in control of the operation and requires that actions be cleared with the federal mine agency.

Many people are unaware that, should cooperation bereak down, MSHA has another option. MSHA can actually take over a rescue or recovery operation under Section 103(j) of the Mine Act (

"j) In the event of any accident occurring in any coal or other mine, the operator shall notify the Secretary thereof and shall take appropriate measures to prevent the destruction of any evidence which would assist in investigating the cause or causes thereof. ****In the event of any accident occurring in a coal or other mine, where rescue and recovery work is necessary, the Secretary or an authorized representative of the Secretary shall take whatever action he deems appropriate to protect the life of any person, and he may, if he deems it appropriate, supervise and direct the rescue and recovery activities in such mine.****"

[Stars for emphasis are mine.]

I was told while working at MSHA, but haven't independently verified, that the federal mine agency had not issued a "j" order since 1976. In that year, the second of two explosions at the Scotia Mine in Kentucky took the lives of an entire rescue team including three federal inspectors. My understanding is that the Scotia Mine at the time of the second explosion was under a "j" type control order issued by MSHA's predecessor agency, the Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration (MESA), then in the Department of the Interior.

Friday, August 17, 2007

What To Say?

Three dead in in a massive outburst of rock pressure in the Crandall Canyon rescue attempt. Two miners and an employeee of MSHA. Several more injured, including another MSHA employee. Rescue operations suspended. Salt Lake Tribune:

Among the dead were miners Brandon Kimber and Dale R. Black. Kimber is a father of three from Price; Black is 48 and from Huntington. The identity of an MSHA employee killed in the cave-on has not been released.

There will be a time for investigations; for analysis; for meticulous unraveling of the details. There will be a time for debates about engineering and rock mechanics, about the performance of the instutitions involved, and about the role, if any, of politics. Many questions will have to be asked and answered in time.

But for one moment, let us suspend all of that.

For one moment, let us simply reflect on the lost rescuers, their families, their friends, their co-workers and their community. Imagine the agony that must be in their hearts.

Those who have poured their energies and their souls into the difficult and dangerous rescue effort for more than 10 days probably number by now in the hundreds. Taking part in the response to a mine emergency has always brought out the most shining qualities among many of the emergency workers, miners, managers, technical specialists, and numbers of people in the community at large. That is true in success or failure.

Too often in the past, rescuers have been unable to reach missing miners in time to save their lives. And that is a shattering, searing experience, as I know first-hand, from being with the rescue attempt after the Southmountain Mine explosion in 1992.

And now, loss of life among the hard-working, supremely courageous individuals serving with the rescue crews -- this is devastating. The personal desolation is deepest for their families and friends, of course. But let us remember, everyone involved with the tragedy is, without a doubt, suffering to the very soul. Indeed, the whole mining community is hurting for these losses.

Words fail; just for a moment, only silence seems a tribute adequate to this grief.

Monday, August 13, 2007

One Week

And still no good news from Crandall Canyon. I am so very sorry for everyone who is going through this.

It's reported that MSHA chief Richard Stickler met for 3 hours yesterday with the families of the missing, and he is now holding regular press briefings. That is commendable.

I will probably be out of touch for a few days, but thinking of the miners and rescuers all the time.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

MSHA Press Conference

Ellen Smith of Mine Safety and Health News reports to her subscribers (in part):

Just as I sent the last email, MSHA had a press conference.

Rescue workers are installing timbers on 2.5-foot centers along the rib. Despite this support, MSHA head Richard Stickler said they are dealing with "the most difficult ground conditions -- ever" and conditions are getting much more difficult. There continue to be severe bumps and outbursts along the ribs.

Stickler said they are now drilling a third hole...The two escapeways and the beltline are blocked, so they will now drill where they think the men could go....

Stickler said he would make no time commitments on any part of the rescue operation.

Rock-Pressure Bursts Impede Rescue Effort

Just got word via e-mail from Ellen Smith of Mine Safety and Health News that two "bounces" occurred overnight in the Crandall Canyon mine where rescuers are still struggling to reach 6 missing miners. Miners speak of a "bounce" or "bump" when coal bursts from the wall of the mine tunnel due to extreme rock pressures. These can happen during active production as well, and the flying coal has caused fatalities and injuries.

Both incidents reportedly interrupted the rescue efforts. Workers returned to the mine after each incident, Ellen reported. She said media have been waiting all day for an expected news briefing from MSHA.

The rescuers who continue to work in the face of further evidence of unstable ground are undertaking a significant personal risk in the hope of saving the missing miners, just like the teams who fought for days to reach 27 missing miners in the face of a December 1984 Utah mine fire.

At this point, fatigue is certain to be a factor -- among those managing the emergency as well as those physically working underground. In a protracted emergency, decision makers, technical personnel and miners all need to be rotated. In the heat of the event, it can be very hard to let go and allow back-up personnel to take charge for a time, but lack of rest can impede awareness, slow down responses and impair judgement. I hope decision-makers are managing the fatigue factor.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported that evidence indicates the original incident involved "floor heave" rather than a collapse of roof strata. Extreme rock pressures can actually squeeze mine floors upward.

The Tribune also reported ground control problems at the mine dating back to March and said it wasn't clear whether the mining company followed advice it sought from an engineering consultant.

Once the emergency is over, there will obviously be questions about MSHA's approval of the the roof control plan as well as whether the mine operator followed the plan as the agency approved it.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Borehole is Through at Crandall Canyon

The Salt Lake Tribune has this:

HUNTINGTON -- A second bore hole has been punched through to a central Utah mine cavity where six miners are believed to have been trapped for five days.
The rescue-drilling project -- an 8 5/8-inch wide, almost 1,900-foot-long shaft through which food, water, video cameras and sensors can be dropped -- reached its destination about 3 a.m. Saturday, said Robert Murray, owner of the Crandall Canyon Mine.

There was no immediate word whether rescuers had determined whether the six, cut off since a cave-in occurred at the Emery County coal mine early Monday morning, are alive.
More details are out now on the triple fatality in Indiana, although the company was still withholding names pending notification of relatives. The Indianapolis Star

The open-top bucket was somehow "upset" inside the shaft as it was descending, and the three men fell to the bottom, Zugel said. He said he did not know what caused the bucket to shift.

All other workers were accounted for, Zugel said. Gibson County Sheriff Allen Harmon said the three bodies had been removed from the shaft.

The "sinking bucket" can hold six to 10 people and is about 6 feet high, worker John Ervin said. The three men were the only people in the bucket at the time, state Fire Marshal Roger Johnson said.

"I don't understand how this could have happened," said Ervin, who added that the chain holding the bucket is inspected daily.

At the start of a shift, the bucket typically takes about six people down to the work area at the bottom of the shaft, Ervin said. The distance is comparable to a 40-story building...

Gibson County Coal's last fatality was in November 2001, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. A miner died after being pinned by equipment, and operator error was cited as the cause.

Last year, the mine administration cited the company for 353 safety violations -- 127 of which were deemed "serious or significant," said Rodney Brown, a spokesman for the agency, which is a division of the U.S. Department of Labor...

"It's the inspector's judgment that the violation, if left unchecked, would lead to a serious injury. In issuing our citations, that's basically an order to fix the problem," he said.

And, it entails a civil penalty of $60 to $60,000, or up to $220,000 for aggravated cases.

Further details on Crandall Canyon:

Murray Energy Vice President Rob Moore said rescue teams were slowed by "some difficult roof conditions" in one section, requiring them to slow their forward advance while erecting additional roof and wall-support materials to prevent more caving.

But mine owner Murray also noted that rescue teams also found small, 2- to 4-foot sections of tunnel in which no caving had occurred.

"They can be traveling by foot to a point and then they can't travel" any farther without having to haul out piles of coal and rock, he said. "The pace they're going is much faster because they're not reaching the magnitude of outbursts."

In addition, Moore said rescue teams had widened part of the tunnel, increasing prospects of doubling the amount of machinery that can be used to remove rubble.
Still, the rescue team has no idea whether more or less fallen rock will be encountered as they progress deeper into the mine.

The suspense is brutal. Even more so, if possible, for a community that held its breath through a protracted rescue effort in 1984. Twenty-seven miners died in the fire that broke out December 19, 1984, at the Wilberg Mine. Rescue teams struggled heroically for days, at great personal risk, to reach the missing but finally had to withdraw as the fire raged beyond control.

Both company and government officials now seem to be continuing the practice of regularly updating the families and --through the media -- the community. That's the way it was traditionally done, up until Sago.

Ellen Smith's editorial of yesterday was noted in the Tribune also. The paper reported on the same page:

Assistant Secretary of Labor and Director of Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) Richard Stickler says there will be no MSHA investigation of the Crandall Canyon mine collapse until the rescue operations are concluded. Beginning such a probe now, he says, would be a distraction to both rescue workers and company management.

"We are trying not to interfere," Stickler said.

I don't quite get it that MSHA would allow the distraction of running a news crew underground to get on-site video of the effort but not the "distraction" of starting a mandated investigation. It is to be hoped that the coment was taken out of context. If MSHA is still running investigations as it always did, MSHA investigators should already have taken some preliminary steps, such as securing copies of the mine operator's pre-shift, on-shift and other safety examination records.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Triple Fatality Reported in Indiana

As sometimes happens with long drill holes, it appears the drilling effort to reach the Crandall Canyon miners went into the wrong area, and another hole had to be started. If all goes will, it should reach the correct area today, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Meanwhile, AP reported that three miners died in Indiana this morning during a shaft-sinking operation. Early reports were that the accident involved a lift bucket in the shaft. I spoke to Tulsa, Okla., based Alliance Resource Partners, L.P., which confirmed that the accident was at their Gibson County Coal, LLP, complex. The miners involved worked for Frontier-Kemper Constructors, Inc., which is a specialist mine construction firm based in Evansville, Inc. Alliance referred me to Frontier-Kemper for details. Frontier-Kemper said it was sending out a news release, which I haven't yet seen.

Sinking of mine shafts can be very hazardous. In January 2003, a methane explosion killed three miners who were sinking a shaft for the McElroy Mine in northern West Virginia. During the past year, in my day job for Mine Safety and Health News, I've written accounts of several serious nonfatal incidents involving the use of lifting platforms and buckets in shaft sinking. I have wondered if there was an increase in shaft sinking activity in the industry, or some other factor involved.

MSHA's usual practice at least since McElroy has been to hold the independent contractor in a shaft sinking operation responsible for safety as long as the new shaft isn't connected to the mine. Regarding independent contractors at mines generally, MSHA can hold the mine operator and/or contractor responsible based on their specific activities and degree of control over safety and health conditions.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

What the ???

It sounds as though the public-information pendulum has swung with a vengeance, and now mine operator Robert Murray and MSHA are allowing people underground during the Crandall Canyon rescue effort who, according to standard mine rescue practice, definitely should not be there.


Since mine rescue became a trained discipline in the early 20th Century, I cannot recollect one other instance of untrained observers or anyone not necesary to the rescue effort being allowed underground during an active rescue attempt.

In a classic example, I was at Southmountain in 1992, where rescuers struggled for a week to reach missing miners afer an explosion. A media pool was allowed on site in a safe surface area to take pictures of the surface area only, and key VIPS -- including then Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin -- visited with family members and with rescue workers on the surface only. The first priority was not to disrupt or distract from the ongoing rescue efforts.

Normally, MSHA's control order during a mine emegency requires the mine operator to get permission for all actions during the emergency. So MSHA apparently is allowing this? At the same time, MSHA's first priority during an emergency is to make sure that no further accidents occur during the effort, as happened, for instance, in the Scotia Mine disaster of 1976. It's hard to believe what I'm hearing.

Ellen Smith of Mine Safety and Health News has just circulated the following editorial, which is posted here with permission. (Writing for MSHN is my day job.)

High Negligence and Reckless Disregard?

Many of us in the mining industry are glued to the news and mining officials for any tidbit on the rescue of six men trapped in an underground coal mine in Utah.
As Mine Safety and Health News reporter, Kathy Snyder, wrote yesterday morning in her blog: "Right now, ground stability is a problem as the rescue effort progresses. In the deep western coal mines, ground pressures can be extreme. Mines have pushed deeper and faced tougher ground control problems as the easier coal has been mined already. Even in normal mining, significant roof falls are not that uncommon. Normally, no one is hurt, but there is always that potential. The science of rock mechanics is complicated. An action in one part of a large mine can affect ground stability in ways that a non-specialist could not predict, and it can even be tough for specialists. A major collapse has the potential to cause an evolving chain reaction."

Kathy should know. As an MSHA employee and press officer for 20 plus years, she had to deal with mine rescue operations, including the Wilberg disaster that occurred in Utah.

We all know that there have been two major mine collapses in the last 13 years -- Azko and Solvay. We also know that we don't really know why these were such major failures that registered 3.6 and 5.1 on the Richter scale respectively.
So as someone who has covered the health and safety side of this industry for 18 years, and gone to both surface and underground mines, I could not believe what I was seeing on CNN news and reading on MSHA's website this morning: a television crew and accompanying reporters, and family members, being allowed inside the mine to view the rescue operations.

I sat glued to the T.V. watching the CNN newscast this morning -- speechless.
All I could think of was: What was Robert Murray thinking when he allowed these non-rescue personnel into the mine? What was MSHA thinking to allow non-rescue personnel into this mine? I was stunned. CNN reported they were at the mine rescue “face,” a 30 minute, 3-mile ride inside the mine, where rescuers are removing the debris trying to get to these trapped men.

Then, while the reporters were filming, (and I don't know if the family members were there at the same time), a severe bump occurred physically shaking the mine, crew and machinery – scaring everyone. As the CNN reporter said, “Frankly, this was very scary. I have to tell you that I have been in Afghanistan and Iraq and that was scary... this was very scary in another way.”

Mr. Murray later claimed that the area in which the film crew and families were allowed to tour was "safe." Mr. Murray said he’s in charge, and he has invited the family members to go back into the mine this afternoon. Mr. Murray also said that MSHA approved of the *news reporters and two family members, who have mining experience, going into the mine. (*The news reporters do not have mining experience).
I have been told on many occasions by MSHA that during a rescue operation, the mine is made "safe-enough" for rescue, but that it certainly is not brought up to the same safety standard as if mining were taking place. In addition, Mr. Murray this morning noted the lack of progress because of “seismic activity,” and he stated in the press conference this morning (MDT), “we could have more seismic activity.”
My point exactly. Why risk any more lives?

Let's look at this in a different context: we aren't even letting family members on "stable" portions of the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed. We don’t let people in damaged houses if there are aftershocks from earthquakes.

This isn't supposed to be a "feel good" operation. If the family members want to feel closer to their loved ones, arrange a safe place at the mine site where they can pray together. MSHA can take the lead in assuring the families that everything possible is being done to get to their loved ones.

If the news crews want to see what it is like inside of a mine, have them go to one of the tourist mines or another underground mine in Utah that isn't under a rescue mode of operation. If the news crews want to experience the feeling of "seismic" activity, let them go on Disney's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

I don't say this to be sarcastic.

My point is this: What did this accomplish, especially if another catastrophic failure or "seismic event" was to have occurred? What precedent does this set for future rescue operations?

I have defended the record of this mine from the first hour of this accident. I have defended the industry and the strides it has made since I began covering mine safety and health issues in 1989. But I will not defend what I see as high negligence and reckless disregard on the part of MSHA and Mr. Murray for allowing these people into the mine during this very serious rescue operation when "seismic activity" continues to occur, and when no one knows why such a catastrophic failure occurred to begin with.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Not Again

As everyone knows by now, six miners remain missing after more than two days in a massive ground collapse at Genwal Resources' Crandall Canyon Mine, and the effort to get to them is not going well. It does, however, seem reasonable to hold out hope.

I'm relying mostly on the the Salt Lake Tribune, which is posting frequent updates and a running index of related stories.

Reports are that workers are drilling 2-inch holes from the surface to the area where the missing men are presumed to be. These could provide communication and supplies. Apparently the holes need go 1,500 feet in all. Such drilling is not a fast process, and sometimes long drill holes encounter problems or miss their target. We can hope for the best in this.

The latest in the Tribune is that the Mine Safety and Health Administration is deploying its seismic system for locating trapped miners. The story discourages to much optimism on that, quoting MSHA's review of it sown actions following the 2006 Sago mine explosion. MSHA then called the system: "old, outmoded, cumbersome and time-consuming to deploy." It has emphasized that the system has never saved a trapped miner.

MSHA failed to mention that the system has saved lives -- in seismic events. One case was after a massive earthquake in Mexico City, where MSHA's seismic detection team found people people buried alive in rubble several days after the catastrophe. I can't recall the year, but believe it was in the 1980's. The Mexican government later honored the MSHA employees for the rescues, including Jeff Kravitz, who still works in the agency's mine emergency operations division. The seismic system does have limitations, and might not have been useful at Sago, but to imply that it has never saved lives just isn't true.

MSHA had other potential motives for downplaying the value of the seismic locator system. At Sago, the agency was slow off the mark in getting the system to the mine site, and took criticism for the delay.

One thing that worries me, if the miners are alive, is that after Sago, MSHA and others turned away from teaching the classic advice to miners who are trapped, to pound on the roof and walls of the mine so that rescuers might detect their signals. At Sago, everyone was horrified to learn that the miners were pounding out signals, but no one was listening. If MSHA is listening at Crandall Canyon, would the miners believe it was any use to signal? The full procedure, which used to be taught, included listening for three shots from the surface, then pounding out a signal. Were these miners taught that procedure?

I also worry about the ground stability as the rescue effort progresses. In the deep western coal mines, ground pressures can be extreme. Mines have pushed deeper and faced tougher ground control problems as the easier coal has been mined already.
Even in normal mining, significant roof falls are not that uncommon. Normally, no one is hurt, but there is always that potential. The science of rock mechanics is complicated. An action in one part of a large mine can affect ground stability in ways that a non-specialist could not predict, and it can even be tough for specialists. A major collapse has the potential to cause an evolving chain reaction.

That said, I believe there's still hope. Crandall Canyon could come out like the Quecreek mine rescue in 2002 rather than like the Sago explosion last year. I'm encouraged that MSHA chief Richard Stickler has gone to the site. The agency also said it's making family liaisons available to the relatives of the missing, a great improvement over the Sago debacle. As in the Sago explosion, MSHA did not initially take the lead in informing the public through news media about Crandall Canyon. But MSHA is talking now, at least. In this respect MSHA seems to have recovered its understanding, enforced in last year's MINER Act, that the federal mine agency exists to serve the community, not the mine operator alone.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

They Got OUT!

Wow, Quecreek times (more than) seven.

Sixty-nine coal miners who were trapped in a flooded shaft in China for more than three days were rescued today.

The miners, who were uninjured, were trapped underground after the state-owned Zhijian mine, in Shan County, Henan province, filled with river water early on Sunday. Thirty-three others managed to escape.

The men were pulled out alive at midday to applause from onlookers, the Xinhua news agency reported. Most were unable to walk unassisted, but some were carried away on stretchers.......

Rescuers piped air into the shaft in an attempt to keep the miners alive and buy time in which to save them.

They poured 549 litres of milk down an 800-metre ventilation pipe, and the men drank it from their helmets. Xinhua said the milk was their only source of nourishment in 76 hours.

Hundreds of rescue workers struggled to prevent more river water from entering the mine as they pumped floodwater from the shafts and cleared silt.

Earlier, Xinhua said the area where the miners were trapped was dry, and had both electricity and a telephone line....