NEWS

Michael Winship: Notes from the Underground

Michael Winship

In late August 1963, I went on a brief vacation to Toronto with my family. After a hard day's sightseeing, I remember lying across the hotel bed watching TV. Just south of the Canadian border, two news events were transfixing America.

One was Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington. The other was the miracle rescue of Hank Throne and David Fellin from a collapsed, anthracite coal mine in Sheppton, Pa. The two men were stuck 330 feet beneath the surface and largely given up for dead until Fellin's brother persuaded officials to drill a small borehole down into the mineshaft and look for signs of life.

"When the drill came through, it almost hit me on the head," Fellin recalled. Five days had passed. It would take another nine to drill a larger hole and haul the men to the surface wearing parachute harnesses and football helmets.

It was the first time the borehole technique was ever used to make contact with miners lost in a cave-in. Now, exactly 44 years later, rescue workers have tried drilling boreholes time and again, futilely attempting to make contact with six men trapped more than 1800 feet beneath the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah.

That too little has changed in the four and half decades since the Pennsylvania mine rescue is grim testimony to the continued resistance of the mining industry to improving safety.

The Crandall Canyon Mine is co-owned by the Murray Energy Corporation, which operates 19 mines in five states. According to The Associated Press, Murray Energy has "incurred millions of dollar in fines over the last 18 months" for safety violations.

Since January 2004, the Crandall Canyon Mine has been fined more than $130,000 for 325 violations, of which 116 were considered "significant and substantial," meaning that someone could get hurt. To give you some idea of how wretched safety conditions in the mining industry remain, this is considered "remarkably good," according to Penn State professor of mining engineering R. Larry Grayson.

And yet, CNN reported that some of the Crandall Canyon miners, including one of those trapped, "apparently were concerned about working in the area of the collapse." And a memo obtained by the Salt Lake Tribune "indicates that mine operators knew the tremendous pressure of a mountain bearing down on the mine was creating problems with the roof."

The name of Bob Murray, Murray Energy's chief executive, seemed familiar, and then I remembered it had popped up while I was researching a column on the Sago mine disaster in January 2006.

Over the last 10 years, Murray has donated $213,000 to Republican candidates, including the president; through political action committees he has funneled another $724,500 to the GOP.

In the first days of the Crandall Canyon collapse, Murray was all over the tube as official spokesman, crassly using the accident to attack the media, the United Mine Workers (he accused them of manipulating the disaster as part of a nonexistent attempt to organize the mine) and environmentalists combating climate change.

Murray's public outrages extended to his claims that an earthquake had caused the accident -- when virtually all experts agree that seismographs were registering the mine collapse itself and not a natural phenomenon -- and his denial that Crandall Canyon was engaged in "retreat mining" -- whittling away at the load-bearing pillars of coal that protect the mine's tunnels -- for additional profit.

In the wake of last year's Sago mine explosion in West Virginia, a new law was passed. The MINER Act includes new rules for emergency evacuations, underground shelters, wireless communications systems and the provision of emergency oxygen and food and water supplies. Additional legislation designed to supplement the MINER Act will increase fines and enforcement powers and "require a rapid deployment of proven safety technologies."

The problem is getting the Mine Safety and Health Administration, filled with industry insiders and political appointees, yet shorthanded at the inspector level, to get off its collective butt and enforce the new rules as well as the ones that already exist.

"Accidents may still occur," the United Steelworkers noted in a statement of support for the Crandall Canyon miners last week. But even deep underground in the bowels of the earth, "Work should be the place where we go to earn a living; not a place to go to die."

Michael Winship, a native of Canandaigua, is a freelance television writer in Manhattan.