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Boss disregard for safety kindles fire at Utah mine
Part of Co-Op mine shut down; 10 miners evacuated
C.W. Mining, gov't officials try to obscure the facts

Another coal miner dies on job in Kentucky
Toll: 19 in five weeks
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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 70/No. 7February 20, 2006


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

(lead article)
Boss disregard for safety
kindles fire at Utah mine
Part of Co-Op mine shut down; 10 miners evacuated
C.W. Mining, gov't officials try to obscure the facts
Militant/Tamar Rosenfeld

ML Coalimages/Lee Buchsbaum
Top: Former Co-Op miners who fought for UMWA representation and their supporters picket near entrance of mine, owned by C.W. Mining, on December 17, the first anniversary of union representation election. Bottom: Co-Op mine near Huntington, Utah, where fire forced company to permanently shut down a 4 million square foot section of the mine.

PRICE, Utah—A fire at the Co-Op mine near Huntington, Utah, February 1 forced the company to permanently seal a 4 million square foot section of the coal mine. Ten miners were forced to evacuate. The Co-Op mine was the scene of a hard-fought union-organizing battle in 2003-04 where safety was a central issue.

Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) officials reported that temperatures in the affected area of the mine had reached 130 degrees and carbon monoxide levels rose. There was also smoke in the mine.

Coming on the heels of 19 deaths of coal miners across the United States in the first five weeks of this year, the bosses at the Co-Op mine and government and industry officials went out of their way to downplay the events.

There was a minimal threat to miners, said MSHA spokesman Dirk Fillpot, according to the February 4 Salt Lake Tribune.

“This is not a rarity,” James Springer, a representative of Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, told the Tribune. “It happens in mines fairly often.”

“Scientists studied a hot spot in that same area a year ago,” KSL TV News in Salt Lake City reported.

Former Co-Op miners report this has been a longstanding problem at the mine, which has been allowed to continue. “I once installed a conveyor belt on a crew in that area when it was getting hot,” said Rodrigo Rodríguez who worked at the Co-Op mine for 14 years and was part of the fight for representation by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). The company would rotate miners into that part of the mine, he said, and sometimes crews “had to come out to cool off and go back again because it was too hot.”

“Fires just don’t break out,” Bob Butero, director for organizing in UMWA Region 4, told the Militant. “When it gets to that point in a mine it means the company has been ignoring earlier problems. Workers are being exposed to greater dangers. Something could happen where the miners are trapped, and even having to go in and seal off the mine is dangerous.”

C.W. Mining owns Co-Op, an underground coal mine where 75 workers were on strike for nearly 10 months. The company fired the miners Sept. 22, 2003, after they began organizing for UMWA representation, better wages, and working conditions. One of the central issues in the strike was on-the-job safety.

The miners won their jobs back in July 2004 after a solid strike, which received widespread solidarity by unions and working people throughout the area and compelled the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to broker a deal between the UMWA and the company. C.W. Mining was forced to offer reinstatement to all terminated miners. Many of the miners were fired a second time right before a union representation election in December 2004. C.W. Mining contested most of the ballots, and the NLRB has yet to announce the results.

“Safety was a big issue for the miners at Co-Op,” said Butero, who worked with the miners in the union-organizing effort at Co-Op. “Miners reported they were continually forced to work unsafe. They wanted to be able to refuse to work in that situation, and have the backing of the union.”  
Funeral for Utah miner
While the Co-Op bosses were dismissing the serious situation at that mine, another event was taking place a few miles away, highlighting the life-and-death questions involved in the struggle for safety and unionization of the mines. A standing-room-only crowd attended the February 2 funeral for Shane Jacobson in Helper. Many miners who work at the nonunion Aberdeen mine where Jacobson, 37, was killed January 29 took the day off or made arrangements to work a different shift in order to attend. In a show of solidarity with his family, coal miners from other operations and working people from surrounding towns were also present.

Jacobson was operating the cutting head of longwall mining equipment when a blowout from the coal seam blasted chunks of coal that fatally struck him.

A miner at the Aberdeen mine, which is owned by Andalex Resources Inc., told the Militant he was part of a crew a few days after Jacobson’s death that the bosses sent to the longwall section where the blowout occurred. Asking that his name not be used for fear of being fired by the company, he reported his crew shoveled a large amount of coal in an area 40 to 50 feet wide, much of it large chunks.

Some citations on safety violations MSHA has written in connection with Jacobson’s death are posted on a bulletin board at the Aberdeen mine, workers reported. According to a miner working there, who also asked the Militant that his name not be used, one of the citations clearly puts responsibility on the company because “bounce guards [were] improperly fastened according to the plan.” Bounce guards are four-by-six feet sheets of thick rubber that hang from the longwall shield and are fastened to the floor to protect the miners from coal bursting out of the seam.

A full report from MSHA on the accident is not expected soon. This initial citation, however, makes clear safety procedures could have been in place to safeguard Jacobson’s life. It refutes claims by the media here that have echoed company pronouncements in stating that Jacobson died due to a “freak accident.”  
‘Stand Down for Safety’ hoax
In response to the rash of mining fatalities this year MSHA encouraged all mining companies nationwide to organize “Stand Down for Safety” meetings on February 6.

Even some of the country’s main dailies, however, pointed out that this kind of response by MSHA is not convincing miners or other working people that the government is serious about stopping the unnecessary killing of miners. “This smacks of public relations more than worker protection,” warned an editorial in the February 5 New York Times, referring to the government’s call for “Stand Down for Safety” meetings organized by the coal companies.

Miners at Aberdeen said company officials conducted the stand down, taking no responsibility for unsafe conditions at the mine, including those that resulted in Jacobson’s death. Aberdeen is known throughout the area as an unsafe mine. MSHA cited it in 2004-05 for 327 safety violations, the second highest in Utah, with 184 of these classified as “significant and substantial.”

Paul Mailhot contributed to this article.
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