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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:36 PM  
Blogger Tammy said...

“MSHA approved of the *news reporters and two family members, who have mining experience, going into the mine.”

I feel that a family should have the right to view the incident seine for healing purposes however I do feel a outside specialist that the families, mine, and MSHA all agree upon should give it a clean bill of health first.

As far as the mines and MSHA believing it is a safe zone I'm not really sure why that is much of a surprise. There are those who are truly doing their best with what they have to work with in the organizations designed to protect workers but for the most part these organizations have been diluted. They have strayed from saving people and are now focused on the easiest and cheapest way to get the job done.

I believe this will change when more families get involved and we are. Families will be demanding more and more change in the way families are dealt with and in agencies that have known but "not recognized hazards".

9:31 PM  

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