By Karl Vick and Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 20, 2007
HUNTINGTON, Utah, Aug. 19 -- In the small hours of Aug. 6, before the mountain came down around six men working to hollow it out, immense forces were concentrated on the far reaches of the Crandall Canyon coal mine. Not all of them came from within the groaning mountain.
Gravity in crushing concert with geology was the immediate problem. For years, miners had ground huge gouges out of the mountain, progressing horizontally a foot at a time. Pressing down on them was a mass of rock extending up more than a third of a mile.
The other pressure was economic. The coal that rattles on conveyor belts out of the hillsides of east-central Utah sold for 50 percent more last year than five years earlier. In Crandall Canyon, the section the mine crew was working Aug. 6 had already been harvested and abandoned by a previous owner. The mine's new owner sent crews back in to gather more.
On Sunday, officials for the first time acknowledged that the six men may never be found. Relatives responded by accusing federal officials and the mine's owners of quitting on the rescue effort and leaving the men for dead.
The abrupt pessimism all but extinguished rescue hopes that had flagged steadily after almost two weeks without a sign of life and the deaths of three rescuers.
It also shifted the focus here to determining the cause of the collapse, widely believed to be related to the work the men were doing: bringing out the great chunks that held up the mine's ceiling.
"That's called 'free coal,' " said Sue Ann Martell, director of the Western Mining and Railroad Museum in nearby Helper.
The vast pillars of coal -- often half or more of the coal in a workspace -- is also called "pure profit," because there's no expense in reaching it. "All you've got to do is knock it down and put it in your car," said Martell. "It's the cheapest coal you can get."
The plan to take that coal was approved by the federal agency charged with reducing the human cost of mining, a toll that for decades ran above 2,000 lives a year nationwide. The U.S. Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) also approved the treacherous rescue plan, which ended Thursday with the deaths of three men, including an agency inspector.
The tandem catastrophes ensure that the MSHA will be under intense scrutiny once the long-established etiquette of mine disasters permits public attention to shift from the fate of the trapped men.
That process began Sunday when Robert D. Moore, vice president of Murray Energy, which co-owns the mine, announced: "It's likely these miners may not be found."
The families of the missing men were told of the new assessment in an afternoon meeting and were "very emotional," Moore said.
Moore has been the public face of Murray Energy since bluff, bald chief executive Robert E. Murray retreated from the media following the deaths of the three rescuers. To observers struggling to understand the dynamics that led to the cave-in -- a rarity in a region where most mining disasters have involved methane explosions -- Murray's absence is significant.
"There's been a lot of talk about how his mind-set may have played a role in this disaster," said Martell.
Murray, a vocal opponent of environmental regulations, has a reputation for insisting on his view of reality. In the first hours after the mine collapse, he went before cameras declaring, "The whole problem has been caused by an earthquake." He cited University of Utah seismographs that experts said merely picked up the massive shock wave of the mine's thundering collapse. Such measurements are common in the ranges laced with rich bituminous seams, but Murray's loud insistence muddled public understanding of "seismic events," a term that in many places refers to an act of God but in coal country means that the mountain is closing its wounds.
Tony Oppegard, an adviser to the MSHA during the Clinton administration, said Murray's manner and standing hover over the question of the agency's June approval of his plan for Crandall Canyon.
"MSHA probably gave it cursory review, and you have to wonder if they gave it cursory review because of who they were dealing with: Bob Murray," Oppegard said.
The agency's commitment to safety enforcement has been a recurring question under the Bush administration. Dave D. Lauriski, a former mine operator from Price, Utah, who headed the MSHA from 2001 to 2004, shifted the agency's mission from regulation to "compliance assistance" -- persuading mine owners to make changes rather than fining them for infractions.
Mine inspectors were even renamed "compliance assistance specialists" until an outcry forced a reversion to the original job title.
"Every minute you spend on compliance assistance is a minute you're not spending on enforcement," Oppegard said. "My view is compliance assistance took a few years to take root, and now we're seeing the effects of it."
Washington plays one more role in the tension between financial returns and safety. Mine operators note that, in the West, most mineral rights are leased from the federal Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service. Those agreements mandate "a maximum economic recovery" of the leased resource, a prod to mine as aggressively as possible, one operator said.
In Crandall Canyon, the money was in the coal the previous owner had left to hold up the roof. Removing it is known as "retreat mining," because the miners retreat toward the entrance as they "pull the pillar." Although hazardous, it is standard practice. Almost all modern coal mining involves allowing the roof to collapse behind extraction machinery.
"It's dangerous, unless you do it right," said Don Kelley, a former miner in Huntington who spent much of his career performing retreat mining.
The process is especially treacherous in the West, where Murray was new to mining. In Utah the mountains dramatically increase the weight, or "overburden," that looms over the mine. The greater the overburden, the harder it is for a mined mountain to achieve what amounts to equilibrium.
In Crandall Canyon, residents said the usual risks were compounded because the miners were directed to extract coal not only from pillars, but from far larger pedestals known as "barrier pillars." Barriers are the essentially large sections of coal that divide one work section from another. The company's plan, approved by the federal overseers, called for mining the section's south barrier, while "pillars should be robbed as completely as is safe to promote good caving."
"Everybody knows you don't mess with barriers," said one mineworker, who asked not to be named for fear of being blackballed by employers. "The coal belongs to the mountain. If you don't listen to the mountain, it will eat your lunch."
The mountain was talking to Crandall through "seismic events" -- the so-called "bumps" and "bounces" that miners say can snap necks against ceilings, or bruise feet and ankles: "Imagine standing on a steel sheet when a shotgun's fired against it," said one.
At least one violent shift preceded the Aug. 6 collapse, prompting mine managers to move the crews away from a barrier that was apparently dangerously weakened by mining. In the days after the catastrophic collapse, seismographic equipment recorded 23 more seismic events, including the lateral implosion that buried the rescue crew.
"There's no way of knowing when they're going to stop," said Richard E. Stickler, the current MSHA head, who directed the rescue operation. "There's so much that's unknown."
Yet retreat mining continues to grow, noted J. Davitt McAteer, MSHA director in the Clinton administration.
"If the price wasn't high, you wouldn't do it. If you had virgin coal, you wouldn't do it," he said. "We are re-mining, going in for a second take, third take, and when we're doing that we're running a risk."
Miner fatalities dropped from 155 in 1975 to 22 in 2005, a federal mine safety official said. But in 2006 the number climbed to 47.
"We may be turning back the clock on mine safety rather than going forward," McAteer said. "It's picked up steam in the last 24 to 36 months. At Huntington, the previous owner had mined it out and left that panel for safety reasons."
The current owners say they are not finished.
Outside the Crandall mine, Moore concluded Sunday's grim briefing by noting that mining might continue in the area, away from the section where the miners' bodies are likely entombed.
"There are other reserves, other locations," he said.
Geis reported from Los Angeles.