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John Daley ReportingMajor mine disasters last year triggered renewed scrutiny and new laws from Congress. This month's tragedy at the Crandall Canyon mine is likely to have the same effect.
In 2006, there were three dramatic multiple-fatality accidents in mines back East, beginning with the Sago mine explosion in January, then a mine fire at the Aracoma mine and an explosion at the Darby mine.
Those three disasters took 19 lives and led to new miners' safety and health legislation, the first in decades.
Cecil Roberts, president of The United Mine Workers of America, has sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, calling for an "independent bi-partisan committee to investigate." Roberts takes mine safety agency MSHA to task saying "time and again MSHA's performance has been found to have had a role in sanctioning the very conduct the developed into subsequent disasters."
One issue those other disasters raised was problematic MSHA inspections, something MSHA has begun to address according Ellen Smith, editor of Mine Safety and Health News. "The big thing that they found after Sago, Darby and Aracoma was that the mine inspectors did not necessarily know the regulations," she said.
Smith continued, "MSHA says that they had to focus on training so that the inspectors knew the regulations and knew the law. And that's something they were starting to put in place, and then Crandall hit."
Another issue sure to get a closer look is Murray Energy's mining plan and decision to mine already-stressed barrier pillars, a move that has generated sharp criticism from former regulators and others.
"Going back into a highly stressed area and trying to extract more coal is a sure way to get yourself in trouble," said Bob Ferriter, director of Mine Safety at the Colorado School of Mines.
Both Murray Energy and MSHA have defended their actions, saying they never took any shortcuts when it comes to safety.
Sen. Orrin Hatch issued a statement today defending MSHA's chief, saying, "Richard Stickler is a very competent MSHA official. He has done his best to see that the job is done right. He cares greatly about these miners."