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The Militant this week
El Militante
Boss contempt for safety kills coal miner in Utah
Worker dies after blowout of coal face underground
New contract proposal by N.Y. transit authority angers workers
Miners, other workers snap up the ‘Militant’
Two more miners die in W. Virginia
Governor calls for ‘Mine Safety Stand Down’
Int’l Coal Group forced to allow UMWA officials into W. Virginia mine for Sago disaster investigation
U.S., Israeli rulers stay the course after electoral victory by Hamas
Unionists support labor defense case  
Canada potash miners survive underground fire

A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 70/No. 6February 13, 2006


Defend Labor Rights
Join Militant Fighting Fund campaign to defeat Utah coal mine boss lawsuit.

(lead article)
Boss contempt for safety
kills coal miner in Utah
Worker dies after blowout
of coal face underground
Aberdeen mine (left) near Price, Utah, where miner Shane Jacobson (right) was killed January 30 after a blowout of the coal face underground. Andalex Resources owns the mine, which was cited in 2004-05 by the federal mine agency for 327 safety violations.

PRICE, Utah—At around 11:00 p.m. on Sunday, January 29, Shane Jacobson was killed when he was struck by chunks of coal at the Aberdeen mine near here. Jacobson, 37, was from Helper, Utah, and had worked at the mine for 10 years. His death marks the 16th fatality in underground coal mines in the United States the first month of this year.

“Given the price of coal, that’s what these companies are concerned with, not safety details,” Jack Blades, a local miner for nine years at the nearby Dugout Mine, told the Militant, responding to Jacobson’s death and the rash of other deaths in the mines.

Jacobson was operating the cutting head of the longwall equipment when a blowout from the coal face, caused by pressure from the mountaintop, blasted out chunks of coal that fatally struck him, company officials told the press. Jacobson was part of a crew of five miners who operate the longwall—underground mining equipment that runs a cutting head back and forth across a panel of coal. The panel is 750 feet wide and nine feet high at Aberdeen, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

The Aberdeen mine is owned by Andalex Resources Inc., which also owns two other mines in the Price area—the Westridge and Genwal underground operations. All three are nonunion.

The current depth of the longwall operation at Aberdeen is 2,700 feet, making it one of the deepest underground mines in the country, with particular safety problems because of the extreme pressure bearing down on the coal seam.

This is the third death at Aberdeen in the last 10 years. “It’s a very unsafe mine,” Mike Dalpiaz, international vice president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) who works out of the union’s District 22 office here, told the press. The union gets calls frequently from miners at Aberdeen concerned about the dangerous conditions, he added.

“If the situation is unsafe, miners have to find a way to stop until it is safe,” Dalpiaz told the Militant in a subsequent interview, noting this can be difficult in a nonunion situation. “Miners can’t do this individually,” he said. “They have to band together.”  
Company at fault for previous deaths
A mine foreman on the longwall was killed in a similar incident at Aberdeen in 1996. Bret Robertson died from his injuries and another miner was hurt when coal burst from the longwall face hitting the miners. At that time, the depth of cover (overburden) above the longwall face was 1,600-1,700 feet. A report on the accident by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) said that “stress from overburden weight provided the energy for the burst.” It noted that a study conducted by the firm Agapito and Associates said that “stress levels, particularly in the coal ahead of the face, reach and exceed bounce prone levels (4,000-4,800 psi) to some degree at cover depths of 1,600 feet.”

This 1996 MSHA report put the blame for that fatality on the company. “Bounce potential was increasing as projected in the studies done by Agapito and Associates,” it said, concluding: “Recommendations from the consulting report relevant to longwall mining in the Aberdeen Coal Seam were not being followed in the area where the accident occurred.”

In 2004 another miner, Jacob Jorgensen, was killed in the outside yard of the mine. Jorgensen was operating a hauling utility vehicle at night when he ran into the canopy of a longwall shield, crushing his head. At the conclusion of its investigation, MSHA recommended that the company install more secure compartments for the type of vehicle Jorgensen was operating, but did not make it mandatory. Miners at Aberdeen report the company has not heeded that recommendation.

“The company needs to do a lot on safety,” a miner who has worked on a longwall crew at Aberdeen told the Militant. He asked that his name not be used, because of fear of reprisal by this nonunion company. “They are still in the stone age if you ask me. They don’t use modern technology to improve things. Only a few people are trained in first aid at the mine.”

“Having a safety committee would be a way to have input from the miners since we are the eyes and ears in the mine,” the miner continued. “Things wouldn’t be so one-sided. We have a right to do it but you have to be adamant about it.”

There are 13 active underground mines in Utah and only two are organized by the UMWA.

The Aberdeen mine has a reputation among workers in this region for being especially dangerous. MSHA cited the mine for 327 safety violations in 2004-05, second in the state. MSHA classified 184 of these infractions as “significant and substantial,” the highest recorded for such violations in Utah. Some of those violations consisted of accumulations of combustible materials, improper ventilation and roof controls, and lack of underground examinations. In comparison, the Sago Mine in West Virginia, where 11 miners and a foreman were killed in early January, received a total of 276 violations, with 120 noted as “significant and substantial,” during the same period of time.

In response to Jacobson’s death, Dalpiaz told the Deseret Morning News that 98 percent of all mining accidents can be prevented. He later told the Tribune that the Aberdeen mine is very deep, and the mountain above is too big for its support mechanism. He later told the Militant, “This happened because of the pressures from 2,700 feet of overburden.”  
Not a ‘freak accident’
An article in the January 31 Deseret Morning News, one of Utah’s main dailies, said Jacobson was killed because of a “freak accident,” which echoes statements by company officials. Many miners and UMWA representatives, however, say that is a cover-up, an attempt to avoid responsibility for the loss of a miner’s life.

“Every company tries to blow off mine fatalities as a freak of nature,” Bob Butero, director of organizing for Region 4 of the UMWA, told the Militant. “That’s not acceptable. We can’t just say every four or five years a miner is going to get killed. There are very specific laws that require companies to develop plans when they have particular dangers mining coal. Not heeding those laws leads to unnecessary injuries and deaths.”

There are indications the company was not taking proper precautions before Jacobson’s death. Several Aberdeen miners, who asked that their names not be disclosed for fear of dismissal by the bosses, told the Militant that on January 7 two workers were hurt when hit by a blowout at the longwall face. Then on January 14 a roof fall shut down production for a few days when the roof top collapsed over a conveyor belt, the workers said, adding that the roof fall was 200 feet long.

“At a union mine the miners have input into the roof control and mining plans,” Tain Curtis, UMWA Local 1769 safety committee chairman at the Deer Creek Mine near Huntington, Utah, told the Militant. “The resources of miners are a great asset not just for the work but also in the plan and in the implementation of the plan. The union helps look after the miners. Without the union all you have is the company and MSHA.”

At a company safety meeting held with workers in the Aberdeen mine one week after the Sago Mine disaster, it became clear that the government agency is not interested in rigorously enforcing safety standards routinely broken by the bosses. Instead, miners reported that MSHA inspector Pat Boyack claimed that drug and alcohol abuse is the biggest safety danger underground.

The way the government and company owners are running MSHA is a serious problem for workers’ safety, Dalpiaz told the Militant. “The coal operators never side with the union to get better safety conditions,” he said.

The recent fatalities in the mines highlight why miners need the union today, Butero said. “If miners see safety problems, even in a nonunion mine they are supposed to be able to report the issue without fear of retribution,” the UMWA officer noted. “Companies may not victimize the miner for doing so directly, but they’ll look for any other pretext to fire a miner who complains. With the union the workers have more protection to speak out and fight for safe working conditions.”

Paul Mailhot contributed to this article.
Related articles:
Two more miners die in W. Virginia
Governor calls for ‘Mine Safety Stand Down’
Int’l Coal Group forced to allow UMWA officials into W. Virginia mine for Sago disaster investigation
Canada potash miners survive underground fire
Unionists support labor defense case
Miners, other workers snap up the ‘Militant’
Company greed killed coal miners in Utah
21 years since Wilberg mine disaster; how Emery Mining Corp. tried to hide facts
No ‘freak accidents’
Court dismisses Massey defamation suit

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