Aug 20, 2007
“Yesterday we went from a tragedy to a catastrophe,” Utah Governor Jon Huntsman declared on August 17, the day after three people were killed and six others injured while trying to rescue six miners trapped in the Crandall Canyon coal mine. In fact, this mine was a “tragedy” and a “catastrophe” waiting to happen because of what the mine owners did and what government officials didn’t do.
The owners were using a method of mining called “retreat mining.” Retreat mining allows mine operators to get the maximum amount of coal out of a deposit without having to pay for very much roof bracing and pinning. But it is also very dangerous. Some of the coal itself is used as pillars in the mine to support the roof. After all the rest of the coal in a seam has been removed, these coal pillars are also removed, allowing the roof to cave in – either immediately or later.
Sometimes the coal pillars and walls are not strong enough to support the mine roof to begin with. They can collapse without warning while miners are working in the area. In addition, collapses in one area of a mine – either planned or unplanned – can trigger unexpected collapses in another area.
Crandall Canyon was a particularly bad location to use this method. The mine extended four miles into the side of a mountain. The collapse that trapped the six miners occurred at a depth of about 1500 feet. The immense pressure exerted by the mountain had been causing small collapses or “bumps,” as they are called, before the final collapse. In March of this year, two other parts of the mine had already collapsed.
Despite all this, the Mine Safety and Health Administration had not shut the mine down. After the March collapses, they even approved the continued use of retreat mining in the part of the mine that has now collapsed – despite the fact that the mine had been cited 325 times since January 2004 for violations of safety rules and regulations.
You might as well call these deaths pre-meditated murder, since those responsible for the mine knew very well the dangers of what they did.