JAMES HATTORI, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm James Hattori.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
I'm Madeleine Brand.
In Utah, hope is fading, but rescue efforts continue at the Crandall Canyon Mine. Six workers have been trapped inside since the mine collapsed a week and a half ago.
HATTORI: Some folks in the nearby town of Huntington are asking questions about the methods used to extract coal from the mine.
To find out more about the Crandall Canyon Mine and about the people who work it, we sent independent producer Scott Carrier to Utah. Here's what he heard.
SCOTT CARRIER: We learned to find miners by driving around looking for big men with arms the width of my legs. Some didn't want to talk, some did, although some wanted to talk off record. The first thing I wanted to know was what it's like to work in a coal mine. They told me it's dark, and dirty, and dangerous. Two thousand feet under a mountain, there's an enormous amount of pressure; the earth creaks and groans. They place long bolts in the ceiling to keep it from falling down, but sometimes the walls blow out and the floors heaved upward. They call it a bounce.
Mr. WALLY FRANZEN(ph) (Resident, Moroni, Utah): There's bounces that go on all the time. They - it happens all the time. Some are real bad.
CARRIER: Wally Franzen of Moroni, Utah, 52 years old. He's worked in the same coal mine for 30 years.
Mr. FRANZEN: We have them in our mine in a long wall section. They bounced, and it will blow that coal clear out. I mean, people get covered up. Sometimes it gives you warning, sometimes it don't.
Mr. BRUCE MYERHOFF(ph) (Former Miner): You get used to that. That's just part of mining. We had one in our mine. Registered nearly four on the Richter scale. It did some damage. Luckily it didn't have a big cave-in.
CARRIER: Bruce Myerhoff lives in Huntington and work as a coal miner for 22 years.
Mr. MYERHOFF: That's part of mining. It's just a different kind of work. Some mines are wet, have water dripping out in the ceiling. Some you have to wear rain gear all the time. Some are very dry. Most of the ones in these mountains right here are non-gassy, but you go just down - 20 miles down to Price, and some of the mines down there are very gassy.
CARRIER: You mean methane. Methane (unintelligible) They can explode, can't they?
Mr. MYERHOFF: You bet.
CARRIER: The coal lies in a layer about eight feet thick, sandwiched between layers of sandstone. The miners cut the coal out in a grid pattern. They gouge corridors eight feet high by 15 feet wide by a thousand feet long - 70 corridors side-by-side, parallel, 130 feet apart. And then they crosscut these corridors, again, 70 cuts, 130 feet apart. So it comes out looking like the plot map of city streets and blocks.
This leaves most of the coal in place, intentionally, for safety's sake. But it's good coal, just sitting there as support pillars. So there's a practice called retreat mining, where as the miners pull out of an area, they carve off the walls of the support pillars and let the ceiling cave in behind them, on purpose, in order to relieve the overall pressure on the weakened structure.
In retreat mining, the profits are high but so are the dangers. One miner told us they called it greeding it out - being greedy. But the miners don't make more money, the owners do. This is the central issue in coal mining - safety of the miners versus profit by the owners. Of the nine coal mines in Central Utah, only two are unionized. The Crandall Canyon Mine is non-union, and a lot of the people we spoke with, many of them union members, had complaints about the mine's part-owner Robert Murray.
This is Joe Young, a coal truck driver from Huntington.
So have you work into mines or have you always been a driver?
Mr. JOE YOUNG (Driver): I've always been a driver. I've hauled coal out of that mine for years.
Mr. YOUNG: (Unintelligible).
CARRIER: Huh. What's it like down there? Have you been down in the mine?
Mr. YOUNG: I was down there once, and it was a good mine. It's an excellent mine until Murray bought it. He commanded - laid off bunch of the miners, shifted them to other mines, and the working conditions just got worse. I have lots of friends who work up there.
CARRIER: And what do they tell you?
Mr. YOUNG: They didn't like it. They don't want to work there, you know, but you have to do a job, you know. Support your family.
CARRIER: You might have seen Robert Murray on TV over the past week. His mines here in Utah and back east have earned a long list of safety violations, and he has a reputation for not getting along with the unions. A lot of people, miners and even local sheriff's deputies we spoke with, admitted they were afraid of him.
Mr. FRANZEN: Yeah, Murray don't like unions because union people tend to make him follow the rules and do things right.
CARRIER: Wally Franzen.
Mr. FRANZEN: I've heard a lot of horror stories about these non-union mines. I can't tell you what's goes on there, but I've heard from other workers that's hired on up there that's told us. There's just some things I shouldn't say. I have my opinion and stuff, you know, you know, what I think of the guy, but I don't know if I ought to say anything because, you know, if he gets - gets word of me saying things about him, you know, I just don't want problems with the guy, you know.
CARRIER: Ever since the collapse happened last week, Robert Murray has been blaming a naturally occurring earthquake. But seismologists say the earth moved because of the collapse, not by vice-versa. And Murray maintains his workers were not engaged in retreat mining.
Mr. ROBERT MURRAY (Co-Owner, Crandall Canyon Mine): The area where these men are is entirely surrounded by solid, firm, strong pillars of coal. There was no retreat mining in the immediate vicinity.
Mr. FRANZEN: I know what happened.
CARRIER: Miner Wally Franzen.
Mr. FRANZEN: I know what happened, because I've been in the mine long enough and I've (unintelligible) think about, you know, there is to happen, it can happen, you know, in - from what they're saying it was an earthquake, I don't believe that. It was a bounce, and what a bounce is, is when you get so much pressure pushing down on them pillars of coal that when it blew, it blew the pillars out and filled the entries up with coal. You know, you're talking thirteen, fourteen hundred feet of all your entries filled up, you know.
CARRIER: So these pillows actually explode?
Mr. FRANZEN: Explode. Exactly.
CARRIER: For now, nobody knows for sure what made the Crandall Canyon Mine collapse, not the owner or federal regulators or the miners in Huntington. But everybody there knows six men are still down in the cold hard ground.
For NPR News, this is Scott Carrier.
BRAND: Scott Carrier is part of the radiocollectivehearingvoices.com. And since the mine caved in on August 6th, we've been seeking an interview with Robert Murray, the part owner of the Crandall Canyon Mine. He has not yet agreed to speak with us.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.