Mine Safety Commission calls for more training

Posted Thursday, January 31, 2008 - 12:00am

Better training was the main focus of Utah's newly founded mine safety commission, in a report released this week to Gov. Jon Huntsman.

"The task has been challenging," said Scott Matheson, Chairman of the commission. "The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) investigation of the Crandall Canyon tragedy is ongoing. We have not had the benefit of information from that investigation. The situation is dynamic with investigative and legislative activity in the U.S. Congress, new technological developments, and MSHA adjustments in how it regulates mine safety. Commission members brought diverse points of view to the issues at hand. Through it all, we stayed focused on the common goal to find steps the state can and should take to improve mine safety and reached consensus on numerous recommendations."

According to the report, the Utah coal industry is vital to the economies of Carbon, Emery and Sevier Counties and to the state as a whole. In the last decade, Utah coal mines have produced roughly 25 million tons of coal each year and have directly employed an average 1,750 employees. In addition, the coal industry indirectly creates thousands of auxiliary jobs, including coal haulage services and coal-fired electric power plant operations. Revenue from Utah coal sales accounts for more than $500 million in Utah's annual economy.

Utah currently receives the vast majority of its electricity from five coal-fired power plants located in Utah. In 2007, Utah's coal-fired plants supplied 83 percent of all electricity generated in the state. In 2005, this percentage was roughly 95 percent, but several new natural gas power plants have come on line, reducing coal's overall share. Four of the five coal-fired power plants in Utah are supplied solely with Utah coal; the fifth, the Bonanza Plant in Uintah County, receives its coal from a mine just over the border in Colorado.

The Commission's report recognizes that in coal mining, every region is different, every state is different, and every mine is different. The challenge of federal safety regulation is to be sufficiently flexible and adaptable to meet the widely varying mining conditions across the country. For three decades, the Utah coal community has relied almost exclusively on MSHA to provide safety regulation. The central question for the Commission is whether the state can add valuable safety improvements to the current federal regulatory system. Although every mine is different, Utah coal mining operations share some common features and face similar challenges. All of Utah's coal mines are underground operations at deeper levels and with greater overburden than mines in other states. These features present risks that are not encountered in other states.

Although the coal industry's place in Utah's economy is significant, its prospects beyond approximately fifty years are uncertain, states the report. As high-quality, easily-reached reserves are depleted in the Book Cliffs and Wasatch Plateau coal fields, mining operations in those fields will encounter increasingly challenging conditions including greater mining depths.

To continue coal production in Utah, coal companies will also look to other Utah coal fields, such as the Emery and Alton fields, to meet future demand. Geologists calculate that 60 percent of Utah's remaining reserves are located in the Kaiparowits Plateau coal field, which is unavailable to mining because it is located within the Grand Staircase- Escalante National Monument.

Although the investigation of the Crandal Canyon mine disaster is still ongoing, it is certain that the Western Energy Training Center along with other training sites in Utah will have their work cut out in order to provide a higher level of training to coal miners throughout the state.

"Coal mining is a dangerous profession and no matter how many disasters there are, as long as there is the demand for coal, there will be miners willing to go and get it," said Marcus Palacios, former coal miner.

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