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Family and friends of trapped coal miners vent frustration, question safety of Utah mine

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Posted: August 21, 2007 6:12 p.m.
Updated: September 5, 2007 5:00 a.m.
    HUNTINGTON, Utah — With six trapped coal miners all but left for dead in a crumbling mountain, families and friends vented their frustration at the mine’s owner Tuesday and asked: Was it too dangerous to be working there in the first place?
    At a funeral Tuesday for one of the three rescue workers killed, a friend of one of the trapped miners confronted mine co-owner Bob Murray and accused him of skimping on the rescue efforts. He then handed him a dollar bill.
    ‘‘This is just to help you out so you don’t kill him,’’ the man said.
    Murray’s head snapped back as if slapped. When the man wouldn’t take back the bill, he threw the money on the ground. ‘‘I’ll tell you what, son, you need to find out about the Lord.’’
    It was an emotional exchange with an owner who had insisted that rescue of the miners was his top priority since the collapse. And it revealed more than just the frustration of people in this mining community in central Utah’s coal belt, where most still speak in whispers when criticizing the officials whose businesses pay their bills.
    Critics are now openly calling the mine a disaster waiting to happen and pointing fingers at Murray Energy Corp. and the federal government as the agents of the tragedy.
    Miners’ advocates have accused the Mine Safety and Health Administration in recent years of being too accommodating to the industry at the expense of safety. And they say MSHA was too quick to approve the mining plan at Crandall Canyon despite concerns that it was too dangerous for mining to continue when Murray bought the place a year ago.
    ‘‘No one took the time to see that it was a recipe for disaster,’’ Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, said Tuesday.
    In question is the decision to allow Crandall Canyon’s operators to mine between two sections that had already been excavated using a mining technique that causes the roof to collapse.
    In that middle section, the mine was cut like a city block, leaving pillars of coal holding up the mountain above. MSHA approved a plan allowing the operators to pull out the pillars, a practice called ‘‘retreat mining,’’ which causes deliberate, controlled roof cave-ins.
    Experts think any investigation will focus on why MSHA agreed to that plan.
    Those conditions are so unstable, some companies will leave behind the last of the coal rather than risk lives trying to pull additional pillars, experts have said.
    In addition to the questions about structure, experts say that the operators and MSHA should have been aware that deep mines such as Crandall Canyon are also prone to ‘‘bumps’’ — an unpredictable and dangerous phenomenon that happens when settling layers of earth bear down on the walls of a coal mine. The force can cause pillars to fail, turning chunks of coal into deadly missiles.
    Since his brother went missing in the mine, Steve Allred said he’s received a tidal wave of phone calls from people who said mine conditions were unsafe.
    ‘‘They tell me that they knew people that was very, very concerned about the conditions in that mine, the bounces, everything,’’ said Allred, brother of trapped miner Kerry Allred.
    He said his brother had expressed some concern, but added: ‘‘There is concern no matter which mine you are in.’’ He said miners have to shut out those thoughts in order to work underground.
    ‘‘If you don’t, you’re not going to survive as a miner,’’ Allred said.
    In March, a bump on the northern wall of the mine caused so much damage, operators abandoned it in favor of mining on the southern wall. MSHA approved the request to conduct retreat mining there in June.
    The Aug. 6 cave-in that trapped the men is believed to have been caused by a mountain bump. Working 1,500 feet underground, the six miners might have been blasted by flying coal, or buried underneath rubble. Murray has said they might not have survived the initial cave-in.
    He’s insisted the collapse was caused by an earthquake, even though government seismologists say the mine cave-in itself is what caused the ground to shake.
    Since then, there have been several other bumps, including another violent one last week, which killed the rescue workers, injured six others and led MSHA to call off efforts to dig underground to the six trapped miners.
    Four test holes drilled into the mountain have not detected signs of life, and have shown there is little breathable air in the mine. A fifth test hole was expected to be completed Tuesday, but officials said they did not expect any good news. They have said the mountain is so unstable that nobody will be sent in unless there are survivors.
    Experts point to that instability as they question the entire operation at Crandall Canyon.
    ‘‘The plans that were developed by the company and approved by MSHA in June were obviously completely defective,’’ said Jack Spadaro, former director of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, a mine engineer and consultant who has advised the United Mine Workers of America and attorneys representing injured miners. ‘‘It seems incomprehensible they would have approved a plan to remove barrier pillars in June.’’
    Murray has pushed for better mine safety, and Crandall Canyon had a better-than-average safety record, according to experts. Union officials who have battled with his Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp. say his 19 mines in five states have accumulated an average safety record. Federal documents show it varies widely from mine to mine in the number of fines, citations and injuries.
    Murray became the public face of the mine disaster at the start of the rescue attempts, leading media tours and promising to find the men. After the rescuers died last Thursday, he dropped from sight for several days, re-emerging Monday to meet with families and tell them their relatives are likely dead.
    ‘‘Their reception to me was probably not good. But at some time, the reality must sink in, and I did it as compassionately as I possibly could,’’ he said.
    Before the funeral Tuesday, the widow of rescue worker Dale Black asked mourners to refrain from confronting Murray. He was met with hard looks and fingerpointing, and the man with the dollar bill who declined to be identified.
    As Murray walked away from the scene, his son picked up the dollar.
    ‘‘We’ll give it to the church,’’ Ryan Murray said.
    ———
    Associated Press writers Jennifer Talhelm in Washington, D.C., and Jennifer Dobner, Mike Rubinkam and Jessica Gresko contributed to this report.

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