Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Utah mine where six are trapped used ‘most dangerous’ method, mining roof-supporting pillars

The Washington Bureau of the Los Angeles Times, long the domain of our friend and founder Rudy Abramson, gets back into his old coal beat today with the latest national story on "retreat mining," a method the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration authorized in June at the Crandall Canyon Mine of Murray Energy Corp. near Huntington, Utah, where six miners are trapped, their fate unknown.

"It's a delicate endeavor," writes Judy Pasternak of the Times. "Columns of coal are left in place to hold up the roof of the mine while the vein is tapped. Once the reserves have been extracted, the miners harvest the last of the coal on the way out, cutting carefully into the pillars and scrambling out of the way as the roof caves in. The final column to be slashed is known among miners as the 'suicide pillar'."

Tony Oppegard, a mine-safety lawyer and former federal mine-safety official, told the Times, "It's the most dangerous type of mining that there is." Pasternak writes that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health considers "the last phase of room-and-pillar mining is disproportionately dangerous," accounting for 10 percent of U.S. coal production, but 27 percent of mining deaths in a 2003 study. Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association told Pasternak the sample of 100 fatalities was small.

Mine owner Robert Murray has denied that the six miners were doing retreat mining, and contends that the roof collapse was caused by an earthquake, an event never recorded in Utah. Outside experts say the seismic jolt registered at the time seems to have been caused by the collapse itself. Pasternak writes that retreat mining "dislodges such tremendous volume of earth with such force that it causes quake activity." (Read more)

Murray has been the coal industry's "best friend," The Washington Post reports, drawing on a long interview he gave reporter Alec MacGillis this summer. To read MacGillis's story, click here.

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