Inspectors Noted Problems at Utah Mine Long Before Collapse

Inspectors Noted Problems at Utah Mine Long Before Collapse

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- At least three years before the deadly accident at Utah's Crandall Canyon mine, a federal inspector noted serious structural problems and feared they could cause the roof to collapse, according to documents released Tuesday.

The warning came from the Bureau of Land Management, which allows mining on federal land. But the government's Mine Safety and Health Administration didn't know about those concerns before six men died Aug. 6, an official testified.

The BLM is part of the Interior Department, while MSHA is under the Labor Department. "This is like the CIA not getting information from the FBI when we're getting attacked by terrorists," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., whose committee is investigating oversight of the mine by MSHA.

Six miners trapped during the cave-in are entombed 1,500 feet below ground. Three rescuers were killed in a second collapse on Aug. 16.

About 30 family members attended the hearing by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, sometimes wiping away tears or holding their heads in their hands. They declined to talk to reporters.

Some family members are expected to testify at a House hearing on Wednesday.

Lawmakers have said they are skeptical that the government did everything it could to prevent the accident. They also have questioned why the BLM noticed the problems at Crandall Canyon, but not MSHA.

Documents released by the committee show that in November 2004, a BLM inspector noted that pillars of coal holding up the mine's roof were failing.

The inspector, Stephen Falk, said further mining by pulling out pillars would be "untenable" and "wishful thinking" in hopes of extending the mine's life.

"Mining any of the coal in the pillars will result in hazardous mining conditions such as pillar bursts and roof falls," Falk wrote.

Under questioning, Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's administrator for coal-mine safety, said the report would have been helpful and could have shaped the agency's decision to allow mining at Crandall Canyon.

Falk's report was done for internal use only, Kennedy's spokeswoman said.

Stricklin said that after the Crandall Canyon accident, he decided to review plans for all deep coal mines that use the same technique.

Both cave-ins at Crandall Canyon are believed to have been caused by a "bump," or spontaneous explosion from the mine roof, pillar or wall, caused by pressure from the mountain above.

A bump in March caused the operators to abandon the northern section of the mine. Critics have said MSHA should have seen it as a warning and closed the mine. Instead, the agency allowed mining in the southern section.

Stricklin said his agency wasn't aware of the extent of the damage caused by the March bump.

But Falk, the BLM inspector, saw it March 15 and described extensive damage to the coal wall, which had cut off an important entry.

Kennedy also presented Stricklin with another report, generated for the committee by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, an agency under the Department of Health and Human Services.

NIOSH said the operators wanted to remove too much coal in the southern section, leaving a higher risk of a cave-in.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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