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.

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