Utah mine becomes a subject of controversy following federal warning

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By John HollenhorstCARBON COUNTY -- A Utah coal mine is under attack by some and is being defended by others after the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration alleges a pattern of unsafe practices.

Statistics suggest the Horizon mine in Carbon County has shown significant safety improvements since 2007 when the Crandall Canyon disaster brought increased scrutiny, but we spoke with some who portray it as a death trap.

With fewer than 100 workers, the Horizon mine is one of Utah's smallest. Union leader Mike Dalpiaz says he's often discussed it with many longtime employees. "Virtually every conversation is that this mine is not safe," he said.

Now MSHA has echoed that claim with an unusual formal notice, alleging a two-year pattern of significant safety violations.

Willie Ellington defends the mine. He worked there for 18 months, starting just before the Crandall Canyon disaster. He admits there were significant safety problems until MSHA ordered corrections.

Utah mine becomes a subject of controversy following federal warning

"I seen where they did make these changes. You know, put in better roof support, crossbeams across the roof," Ellington said.

"It's a terrible mine," Dalpiaz said. "MSHA gets in there, and they can't overlook it. It is so bad you can't step over it."

But Ellington says mine managers would have corrected things even without federal pressure. "They understand the safety of the men and things like that. From what I've seen, they didn't just put guys in unsafe situations," he said.

We spoke to another longtime employee who wouldn't let us use his name. He says he believes he was laid off in December because he repeatedly raised safety concerns. He says the place is driven by greed and he's amazed no one has been killed yet.

American West Resources, Inc., the company that owns the mine, issued a statement, saying: "We believe we are currently in full compliance with all mandatory health and safety standards." [Click here to read the entire statement]

The company admits its violation record was twice the industry average in 2007 but was cut 73 percent to half the industry average in 2008.

The union says it's clear MSHA cracked down after four major accidents, including Crandall Canyon.

"In our industry, it always takes blood to make a difference," Ellington said.

Horizon and 14 other mines have 90 days to prove there's no pattern of safety violations or to show the pattern has been corrected. Otherwise, one further violation could lead to an immediate federal shutdown of the affected part of the mine.

E-mail: jhollenhorst@ksl.com

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