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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 71/No. 33      September 10, 2007


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(lead article)
Utah mine is closed for ‘safety concerns’
Miners angry at layoffs,
bosses’ deadly profit drive
Militant/Chris Hoeppner
August 25 fund-raiser in Helper, Utah, for families of six miners trapped in mine collapse.

HUNTINGTON, Utah, August 27—In the wake of the deadly mine collapses at the Crandall Canyon mine, which have trapped six miners underground and killed three men, Murray Energy Corp. has said that another one of its Utah mines, the Tower mine, will be temporarily closed due to safety concerns. Company president Robert Murray announced August 26 that at least 170 miners will be laid off from the Tower and West Ridge mines in Carbon County, Utah.

Murray offered the workers jobs in mines his company owns in Galatia, Illinois, and St. Clairsville, Ohio. He said they would be housed in a bunkhouse, work three weeks straight, and only then get a week off to visit their families in Utah.

“This is a bad deal,” Jeremy Bailey, 31, a miner who was just laid off from the West Ridge mine, told the Militant. “Who can really do that? I have a family and I am not going to leave them. There is not much time to decide.” Workers were given only a day or two until August 27 to make a decision.

Bailey worked on the rescue operation at the Crandall Canyon mine after six miners were trapped August 6 in a massive collapse deep in the mine.

Many miners and safety officials say a “bounce”—a movement of the mountain caused by intense pressure and the extensive mining of coal—caused the sides of the mine to implode and the floor to heave up more than two feet. The miners were trapped by 2,000 feet of rock and coal.

In June Murray Energy received a permit from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to begin “retreat” mining at Crandall Canyon. That procedure is considered among the most dangerous mining methods. Pillars of coal that support the roof are removed as the miners withdraw from the work area, letting the roof cave in.

During the rescue operation, Bailey said, he was operating a scoop to help clear the collapsed entryway to reach the trapped miners when a bounce occurred. The force was so great that his machine was covered with debris.

“It slammed me,” Bailey said. “I could not see anything, it was so dusty. I was only able to get out by listening to a voice calling my name.”

On August 16 another bounce led to a second collapse, which killed three rescue workers and injured six. The underground rescue operation was halted. Three workers remain hospitalized.

Anger remains among working people in the coal towns of central Utah, as facts have emerged about the mining practices by Murray Energy and after company officials said the men may never be found and may be left entombed in the mine.

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) reported August 24 that miners at Crandall Canyon had requested the union represent them in the upcoming MSHA investigation of the disaster.

Families of the trapped miners have secured lawyers to represent them and requested the help of the UMWA, according to local press reports.

Some big-business politicians have called for a congressional inquiry. Utah governor Jon Huntsman announced August 23 that he has set up a Utah Mine Safety Commission that will conduct a separate investigation.

The announcement came a few hours after Huntsman, who has sought to distance himself from Murray, publicly attacked the mine owner for “unconscionable” behavior toward the six trapped workers’ families.

Murray responded in a letter to the governor, publicized widely in Utah daily newspapers. Asserting that the governor’s remarks were damaging the company’s reputation, it read, “If you persist in your statements and course of action, you, Governor, are going to jeopardize 700 jobs in Carbon and Emery Counties. I cannot maintain them alone, and I definitely cannot do it if I am going to be your whipping boy.”

A few days later Murray announced the layoffs.

The company claims the layoffs will be temporary, lasting only until mining engineers and experts say the Tower mine is “safe” and can be reopened.

Miners report, however, that dangerous conditions at Tower are not new.

The Tower mine is about 2,800 feet below the mountain’s surface, and plans were to go another 400 feet deeper, the Salt Lake Tribune reported August 27. According to the Utah Geological Survey, this is “deeper than any [coal-mining] long-wall machine has ever successfully been used in the United States.” The deeper the mine, the more potentially dangerous the conditions.

MSHA’s records show bounces are a common occurrence at the Tower mine. There have been 10 reported this year, 4 of which caused injuries and 6 which moved heavy machinery or halted production. On May 20 a bounce sent coal flying out of the coal face striking a miner. He received cuts to his head requiring stitches.

In January 2006, Shane Jacobson was killed at the Tower mine while operating a longwall shear to cut coal. A bounce blasted out chunks of coal from the coal face that fatally struck him.

This was the third death at the Tower mine in 10 years.

Out of the 10 operating mines in Utah, 7 are 1,600 to 2,000 feet below the surface, according to the federal Bureau of Land Management. Miners report that unsafe conditions are common in many Utah mines.

On August 23 the Dugout Canyon mine, owned by Arch Coal, was evacuated because of elevated levels of carbon monoxide. MSHA said a fire occurred on the coal face on the longwall mining section.

Matt Madden, 27, was a roof bolter at the nearby Horizon Mine. A few weeks ago he was hit in the chest by a roof bolt and suffered three broken ribs and a split sternum.

“Because the mantrips almost never work, it took three hours for them to get me out of the mine and another hour and a half to get me to the hospital,” Madden told the Militant. The mantrip is the vehicle that brings workers in and out of the mine.

Madden said he had expressed concerns that the bolts used to hold up the roof were too short. “I reported this to management and was told that MSHA said it was okay to use six-foot roof bolts. I know it’s not safe. We’ve had a lot of roof falls at Horizon,” he said.

Madden worked at the Willow Creek Mine in Helper, Utah, when a mine fire in July 2000 killed two people and injured eight others. Along with his crew he went back into the mine and pulled out the survivors and the dead.

“We need the union,” Madden said, referring to Horizon and other nonunion facilities. “We miners know how unsafe it is, but the bosses won’t listen to us. With the union we can make them listen to us.”

Chris Hoeppner and Ved Dookhun contributed to this article.
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