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The Utah Mine Disaster: Don’t Call It an Accident


Three lives are lost and counting in the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah. The flamboyant, camera-hogging mine owner, Bob Murray, has called this a “once in a lifetime” accident, like a car crushed by a boulder suddenly dislodged. These horrors happen.

Yes, but when we add one plus one plus one, we don’t call three an accident. We call it a product, a sum, the result. And the Utah disaster wasn’t random; it is the product of conditions just waiting to be added up.

 

Murray, a self-made millionaire, owns companies producing more than 20 million tons of coal annually. He’s known as a hard-driving executive who pushes the limits in his mines, seeking to extract the last dime from the coal.

 

At Crandall Canyon, the miners were working at depths that test the limits of safety. Although Murray denies it, federal regulatory officials say that retreat mining was being practiced. Retreat mining is a perilous technique in which pillars of coal hold up portions of the roof, and when the area is mined, the pillars are pulled down, capturing the useful coal and collapsing the roof.

 

Even hard-driving mine owners aren’t allowed to run amok. There are federal and state laws and regulations that help protect worker safety in the mines. But the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration isn’t exactly a bulldog. The mine safety czar, Richard Stickler, a former coal company executive with a lousy safety record, was deemed so unfit for the post by Republican and Democratic senators alike that they wouldn’t confirm him. So Bush appointed him on October 2006 when the Congress was in recess.

 

And Murray, the owner of the Utah mine, is infamous for routinely opposing safety regulations. “Anything that will cost Bob Murray any extra money, he will find reason to find fault with it,” said Phil Smith, communications director of the United Mine Workers, which doesn’t represent the workers in Utah.

 

Murray also knows how to buy influence. He is a big-time donor to the Republican Party, personally donating over $115,000 to Republican candidate over the past three election cycles and another $724,500 to the GOP over 10 years through political action committees connected to his businesses. He brandished that clout in 2003, threatening the job of MSHA district manager Tim Thompson, who ordered him to shut down one of his Ohio operations. “I will have your jobs,” he said. And in fact, Thompson was transferred to another office and retired in 2006.

 

So perhaps it’s not surprising that federal regulators signed off on the “retreat mining” at Crandall, which one expert termed “damned dangerous” in an area known for its instability.

 

Murray‘s scorn for safety has resulted in the MSHA citing his mines for thousands of safety violations, and calling for him to pay millions in fines. According to the New York Times, Crandall Canyon had been issued 324 citations by federal officials, with 107 said to be “significant and substantial,” or likely to cause harm.

 

But if the conditions were unsafe, surely the workers would join together to avoid risking their lives. CNN.com reports that workers were concerned but feared reprisals if they spoke out. They had no union. Bizarrely, days after the miners were trapped, Murray went on a wild rant against the United Mine Workers, suggesting that they were using the tragedy to try to organize the mine. But sadly for the workers, the UMWA wasn’t there to stand up for them.

 

This catastrophe should be seen as the logical product of conservative policy, the sum of a castrated regulatory agency plus an unorganized and vulnerable workforce plus an untrammeled CEO pushing the edges. These conditions added up to disaster. Don’t call it an accident. The lives lost are the product, the sum, the result of conservative ideology put into practice.

 

Robert L. Borosage is co-director of the Campaign for America‘s Future. 

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