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Cause of Utah Mine Collapse Disputed

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Cause of Utah Mine Collapse Disputed

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Cause of Utah Mine Collapse Disputed

Cause of Utah Mine Collapse Disputed

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Searchers Thursday finally heard noises coming from an area where six Utah miners have been trapped. Mine co-owner Robert Murray insists an earthquake caused the mine collapse, but some mine safety experts disagree.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Joining us is NPR's Frank Langfitt, who's been covering the mine collapse story. Hi, Frank.

Mr. FRANK LANGFITT: Hi, Madeleine.

BRAND: Frank, we just heard from Bob Murray, the co-owner of the Crandall Canyon Mine and he said repeatedly that the trapped miners were not engaged in retreat mining. Now, you've worked this story and you have spoken to officials at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. What are they telling you?

LANGFITT: Well, they say technically what he's saying could be true because no one knows at that very moment what they were doing underground. In fact, only the men do and at the moment certainly we can't talk to them. But everybody who has looked at the maps, and I've talked to a number of mining engineers, I've also talked to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, they say it appears that the only reason they would have been in that area was to do retreat mining, which means either taking the pillars out entirely, which of course support the roof, or taking large sections of those pillars out.

Now, I was really puzzled by this and others were, who are familiar mining, so I called Bob Friend, who is a high ranking federal mine safety official. And normally around this time MSHA, as it's called, doesn't ever want to talk about causes, but very interestingly he did want to talk to me about it. So here's a piece of tape where he kind of explains what they think was going on.

Mr. BOB FRIEND (Mine Safety and Health Administration): We don't know exactly what they were doing at the time, but they were in the section of the mine where they were performing secondary mining. So they were in some facet of that.

LANGFITT: And what he means by secondary mining is, of course, pulling those pillars. And what's also puzzling about what Mr. Murray just said is that they were in primary mining, which means sort of digging deeper into the mountain. And again, all the mining engineers I have talked to who've looked at the maps say that doesn't make any sense because it looks like the company was in the process, really, of pulling out of this mine.

I mean a mine looks like the map of Manhattan. It's all a grid. And those blocks are like the pillars that hold up the roof. And often, when they pull out of these mines, they take all the pillars. So if you actually looked at the map, you'll see huge swaths of this - and this is a huge mine - that is completely empty. All the pillars are gone and it's all caved in.

BRAND: Okay, Frank, we also heard from Bob Murray that he disputes this so-called memo. This memo was written by a civil engineer and geologist consulting firm, and basically this memo says, hey, you are actually engaging in retreat mining in this general area, and it's pretty dangerous.

LANGFITT: It does. I mean, what's interesting is the memo was actually paid for by the company. Not necessarily Mr. Murray's company, but it looks like the co-owner. So certainly they asked for it, and the reason they asked for it is about 900 feet from where this accident occurred, back in March, there had been a really big bump. And what that means is that the floor would've heaved up and the coal pillars would've been crushed by the weight of the mountain above so that coal would actually come shooting out of the walls. And it was so significant that they ended up having to abandon that area.

BRAND: Frank, what causes these bumps?

LANGFITT: Enormous pressure. All of these pillars have to support all that weight. And as you continue to take the pillars out, that puts more and more pressure on the pillars that are still left.

BRAND: And what about this dispute over whether or not an earthquake caused this mine collapse? Mr. Murray is saying, yeah, it was an earthquake that did this, nothing that we did, but everyone else is saying, no, we did not register an earthquake.

LANGFITT: Well, I haven't found anyone else who thinks it was an earthquake. And I think what's important to remember is that there's tremendous pressure on these mines out in Utah. And so it's not uncommon to have these big bumps that will register, and these do tend to have a pretty high magnitude, and so people can feel them elsewhere.

BRAND: So a bump, in effect, is caused by human activity, not - it's not a naturally occurring...

LANGFITT: They can, I suppose. But obviously the reason you're seeing it in a coal mine is because you're in there. You're taking out all of this rock. And so as you take out that rock, naturally there's going to be shifting.

BRAND: Frank Langfitt covers labor and the workplace for NPR. Frank, thank you.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome.

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