JOHN YDSTIE, host:
Some experts are now questioning whether the Crandall Canyon Mine should have been operating at all and whether federal regulations need to be beefed up to improve emergency response in such disasters.
Joining us is Ken Ward, a reporter with The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia, who has written about mine safety for 16 years. Thanks for being with us.
Mr. KEN WARD (Reporter, The Charleston Gazette): Thank you.
YDSTIE: Now, after three mine disasters last year, including Sago, where 12 miners died in West Virginia, Congress passed a law aimed at improving rescue and emergency response efforts. That doesn't seem to have helped the miners in Utah. What happened?
Mr. WARD: There's a number of things that go into that. One is that the act that was passed last year - the MINER Act - wasn't really focused on preventing these sorts of disasters. It was focused on trying to help rescue miners once an explosion or a fire or roof fall occurs. But at the same time the law set some fairly long timelines for getting some new improved rescue gear into the mines. In this case, at the Crandall Canyon, for instance, it certainly would have been a great help if the miners would have been equipped with two-way wireless communications devices so that if they had survived the initial mine collapse, they could have communicated to the surface where they were and communicated the fact that they were alive.
But Congress wouldn't pass this law last year - did not require that equipment to be provided by mine operators until 2009. And of course there's a lot of talk in Congress that the Mine Safety and Health Administration is moving too slowly to implement some of these requirements. But the fact of the matter is that the Democrats that are controlling Congress now, when they were in the minority last year, they worked out and compromised and agreed to these timelines.
YDSTIE: Some experts are questioning whether the type of mining being done at Crandall Canyon should have been allowed at all. Should it have been approved?
Mr. WARD: Well, I think that's the question that investigators are going to have to look at. When Bob Murray's company bought the mine, they proposed a plan to go in and get kind of every last bit of coal they could out of it by actually doing what's called pulling pillars - removing the coal that was left to support that roof.
As you do that it creates a lot of stress on the walls of the mine and it causes those walls to actually kind of explode out in something called a bump or an outburst. And I have not been able to find one mine safety expert who's looked at this plan once it's approved by the Mine Safety and Health Administration who thinks it should have been approved. And there's a lot of questions being asked about it, and Mine Safety and Health Administration is going to have to kind of answer those.
YDSTIE: Are there common threads running through all of these mining disasters, even though the specific cause of each collapse might be different?
Mr. WARD: I think that there are in a couple of ways. You know, first, if you go back and look at the history of mine disasters, almost uniformly you see that there was some lapse by the regulators, by the inspectors, or the people who approved mining plans, or others within the federal government or state government, who overlooked problems, or don't pick up on problems, or don't write rules that are strong enough, that's been a constant theme through the history of mine disasters, that the regulators have not done all that they could to prevent these things.
YDSTIE: It seems that over the last couple of years we've had more mining disasters. Is there a trend here?
Mr. WARD: Unfortunately, I think that there is, and part of what's driving that is that coal prices are high and coal demand is very high. Our country has an insatiable appetite for energy. The easy coal that could be gotten to safely and without a lot of danger is by and large gone.
And one of the things that happens then is as prices are up, more marginal sorts of coal properties, properties that might have dangerous roof conditions, become more attractive to mine operators. And you see the same sort of thing at the Crandall Canyon mine, where Bob Murray's company went in to try to take a mine that had already been extensively mined by another operator and kind of dig out the last little bit of coal that they could. And those sorts of things create risks that in a market that didn't have as much demand, that didn't have as high a price, companies might not be willing to take.
YDSTIE: Thanks very much.
Mr. WARD: Thank you.
YDSTIE: Ken Ward is a reporter with The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. He's written about mine safety for 16 years.
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YDSTIE: Engineers envisioned a time when robots do most of the dangerous mining work and even help rescue trapped miners. You can read about those possibilities at npr.org.
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