The fatal Utah coal-mine fire is a "senseless tragedy" caused partly by management's overemphasis on increased production and federal officials' failure to set stricter mine-safety standards, United Mine Workers union President Richard L. Trumka said yesterday.
"When a coal operator becomes so concerned with setting short-term coal-production records, safety is made an afterthought and miners are needlessly killed," Trumka told reporters at UMW headquarters here.
He also criticized the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration for approving the design of the Emery Mining Co.'s Wilberg mine. It had two entryways instead of four, which the union has said is the minimum needed to assure adequate ventilation and emergency exits.
The mine fire erupted Wednesday night in Orangeville, Utah, as 22 miners and five company officials worked to break an industry record for "longwall" coal mining, a mechanized method that allows greater yield, according to a company spokesman.
Trumka said that, no matter what caused the fire, "one lesson is perfectly clear . . . . Production contests without concern for safety and health are an unacceptable race toward death."
Emery officials were at the scene of the fire yesterday and were not available for comment.
Trumka, displaying a map of the mine, called the two-entry system a "very, very unusual situation" of the type strongly opposed by the union on safety grounds.
The 1969 Mine Safety and Health Act established regulations governing ventilation systems for mines and aimed at separating fire-prone coal conveyor belts from fresh-air intake on which underground miners depend.
In most cases, the regulations in effect require at least three separate entryways but give MSHA regional officials discretion to approve two-entry ventilation plans, according to a UMW spokesman.
Richard Kulczewski, spokesman for MSHA's regional office in Colorado, said the conveyor belt was believed to be the source of the fire, but he declined to comment on the UMW criticism and the agency's approval process regarding the mine's ventilation. "That issue will have to be dealt with in the investigation," he said.
Pointing to the blueprints of the mine, Trumka said that earlier plans calling for a third entryway were dropped. "This area of retreat was not available" to the trapped miners, he said. "We don't believe three entries are safe, let alone two."
Trumka said that the union has contacted members of Congress and that they plan to conduct hearings, probably in Utah.
The accident could be the worst mining disaster since 38 miners were killed in 1970 in Hyden, Ky. Before the Utah fire, 94 miners had been killed nationwide this year, compared with 70 last year.
The Wilberg mine has averaged 11.48 accidents for each 200,000 man-hours worked, compared with the national average of 10.06 accidents for underground mines, according to MSHA. While the safety record is below average, it is a marked improvement over Wilberg's accident rates of 17.01 in 1983 and 37.23 in 1982, according to MSHA.
Trumka, whose 160,000-member union represents the Emery miners, said the most recent coal-dust readings there by MSHA officials showed that concentration of the volatile dust was more than 50 percent above the federal standard.
A Mine Safety and Health Review Commission official said the most common cause of mine fires is accumulation of coal dust on conveyors not kept clean.
"You're supposed to have men who patrol the belts and water lines that are supposed to be electronically tripped in case of fire," the official said. "It is a very hazardous operation, especially if you are running a heavy volume of coal."