THE BLOG
09/07/2007 11:55 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mining in a Perfect World

In a perfect world, employers would sufficiently value their workers that they would do everything they can to ensure their safety.

My friends, we know all too well that this is not a perfect world.

If you reside on planet Earth, chances are you've seen some of the exhaustive news coverage of the August 6 Crandall Canyon mine disaster in Utah and the tragic rescue effort that followed. That means you have also seen a great deal of the mine owner, who despite repeated assertions that "this isn't about Bob Murray," talked in great detail about his personal history, how he got into the business, how this was his first major accident, how he was the first one in the mine when his rescuers were killed and injured, etc. In fact, during his first major press conference after the initial mine collapse, he went on like this for 20 minutes before his first mention of the six trapped miners.

You also may have gathered that Bob is none too fond of the United Mine Workers of America, nor of me personally. Over the last month, he has blamed us, other mine experts, the news media and phantom earthquakes for the conditions in his mine -- everyone but himself. At a time when the focus should have been solely on the rescue operation, he seemed more intent on diverting attention away from his own safety record and the flawed mining plan that he submitted to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) approved that led to this disaster.

Make no mistake -- this was no act of God. This was an act of men, and these men must be held accountable for their actions. The Crandall Canyon disaster began on June 3, 2007, not August 6, because June 3 is the date Murray Energy submitted to MSHA a plan to engage in retreat mining at the Crandall Canyon Mine.

Likewise, MSHA's best chance for saving the miners was on June 15, not August 6 or any date after that. But when MSHA approved the Crandall Canyon mining plan on June 15, that chance was lost. MSHA had approved a plan to allow a coal company to remove the last remaining supports that were holding up an entire mountain -- a mountain with a history of "bumps" and collapses.

Bob Murray is right about one thing: This isn't about him. It's about the more universal practice, old as the history of mining, of putting production and profits ahead of people. And while mine operators have usually been the culprits, in recent years they've been ably assisted by MSHA. That agency's leadership under the Bush administration rejected important safety reforms proposed during the Clinton administration and ignored the agency's sole reason for existence -- to enforce the law and do everything in its power to protect the health and safety of miners. They abandoned that mandate and shifted the agency's focus to regulatory "compliance assistance."

Now MSHA will begin its investigation of the disaster -- without, by the way, any representatives of the families who lost their loved ones being part of that investigation. The only two parties who will be involved in the investigation are the company and MSHA. And they will be investigating...that's right, the company and MSHA. This situation does not inspire much confidence that the results of that investigation will fully explore all the facts and assign proper responsibility for this tragedy.

That is why I have written to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, calling on Congress to appoint an independent, bipartisan committee of coal mine safety experts to investigate the Crandall Canyon disaster. I do not believe the American public and our nation's coal miners will be well-served by another instance of MSHA investigating itself.

And that's why the so-called "independent" review team put together by DOL Secretary Elaine Chao does not inspire confidence that its findings will be much more than window dressing. By appointing retired career MSHA people to investigate MSHA, it doesn't seem all that different from the specter of MSHA investigating MSHA.

Even though the UMWA does not represent the miners at Crandall Canyon, we do represent the interests of every coal miner, union and non-union alike, especially when it comes to health and safety. We are their only voice, and have been for 117 years. That's why UMWA members were among the first to respond to the Crandall Canyon disaster, and that's why we're so forceful in speaking out in Congress and where ever we can about improving safety in America's mines.