Death in Utah

August 17, 2007

Martin Toler's Dying Words, Penned Within the Sago, West Virginia Coal Mine“Tell all I see them on the other side. It wasn’t bad. I just went to sleep. I love you Jr.” And with those poignant words, scrawled in the dark on the back of an insurance form, mine foreman Martin Toler, Jr. went to sleep forever, along with 11 other coal miners in Sago, West Virginia last year. As we now watch a similar story unfold in an excruciatingly slow search for six miners missing since 6 August in the Crandall Canyon mine collapse in Central Utah, northwest of Huntington, word comes late at night that yet another mine cave-in has killed three of the mine rescuers and injured six others. What is it about these tragedies that causes them to unfold under cover of darkness, we wonder, while most sleep at home, unaware?


Crandall Canyon Mine, Near Huntington, UtahUtah Gov. Jon Huntsman said: “Tonight we have witnessed a most unfortunate incident on top of last week’s tragedy. . .I hope the lessons we learn from this week in Utah will be instrumental in improving mine safety everywhere.” Our question is, what have we done to improve mine safety since the Sago blast? If we can spend money to monitor jetsetter Martha Stewart with an ankle bracelet, is it really asking too much to implement programs to protect our coal miners?

Missing Coal MinersPajamadeen is the granddaughter of a coal miner who died of black lung disease. She knows that coal mining has always been a dirty, dangerous job and that often only token gestures are made — the least the law requires — when it comes to the safety of the blackened and besmudged coal miners. As the frantic drilling of fruitless bore hole after bore hole continued for 11 days in Utah, she watched and wondered how the six miners were faring. Did they have oxygen and water? Were they even alive? Now, we may never know; rescue operations have been suspended indefinitely at Crandall. The mountain is alive, though, and treacherous, constantly shifting and refusing to yield the six lost miners.

Randal McCloy, the lone survivor of the Sago mine disaster, wrote a letter to the victims’ families which appeared in the Charleston [WV] Gazette on 28 April 2006. In part, McCloy wrote: “The mine filled quickly with fumes and thick smoke and. . .breathing conditions were nearly unbearable. . .At least four of the rescuers, the emergency oxygen packs, were not functioning. . .There were not enough rescuers to go around.” The “rescuers” didn’t really matter: even when working, each rescuer (in governmentese, a “Self-Contained Self-Rescuer,” or SCSR) only provided an hour of breathable air. And so they sat there and died, one by one. It took 41 hours to find them.

Elaine Chao, Secretary of LaborOn 4 January 2006, the same day the dead Sago miners were found, U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao said that the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) was launching “a full investigation to determine the cause of this tragedy and will take the necessary steps to ensure that this never happens again.” Senator Robert C. Byrd, D-WV, scheduled a 19 January 2006 hearing. His website said: “The families of the Sago miners deserve to know what happened in that mine. . .Just as importantly, miners and their families across this country want to know that steps are being taken to prevent others from ever experiencing such pain. . .The investigation at the Upshur County [Sago] mine will tell us what caused that deadly explosion. But one conclusion is already evident: it’s time for the decisions affecting America’s miners to be made with their best interests at heart. That should be the legacy of the Sago miners.”

Not to be outdone, the U.S. House of Representatives also called for an investigation into the Sago disaster, saying that Congress had been abdicating its responsibilities to oversee worker safety issues, while at the same time taking a dig at President George W. Bush by saying that the Bush administration had staffed agencies dealing with worker safety issues with industry insiders and political cronies.

Ultimately, the Sago mine closed in March 2007. But despite all of the grandstanding and hand wringing, not much else has changed for coal miners.

West Virginia passed a law requiring mining companies to provide workers with additional emergency air supplies, tracking devices and communications equipment. Coal mining companies were required to submit new emergency plans, including the use of communications and tracking devices, by 31 July 2007; notification of the acceptance or rejection of such plans by West Virginia will be given to the companies by 31 August 2007. Here’s a West Virginia list of approved emergency communications and tracking manufacturers.

Crandall Canyon MineSenator Byrd’s Congressional bill addressing mine safety, which would have mandated the use of communications equipment to contact miners, required additional air caches, and required that rescue teams be staffed and on site at mines, languishes in Congress. In March 2006, MSHA invoked a power only used twice since its 1978 formation (after the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 was passed). David G. Dye, the acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health, said that the government would “require the use of proven technologies and techniques to help miners evacuate quickly and safely after a mine accident. . .We are using the emergency temporary standard to get help into the field as fast as possible.” Say what?

Read more coal mining news.

Photo credits: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Reuters/Kenny Crookston

Copyright © 2007;

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