George W. Bush: Not A "Stickler" For Mine Safety? genre: Econ-Recon & Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

Stickler And Murray


The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting that public records indicate that many of the statements made by mine owner Bob Murray during the Crandall Canyon Mine rescue attempt have been less than accurate.

Since the outset of the mine collapse, there has been a dispute as to the type of mining taking place at the site. According to the records reviewed by the Tribune, retreat mining was in fact taking place...despite statements to the contrary by Murray.

Records of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) show that, after Murray acquired a 50 percent ownership in the mine on Aug. 9, 2006, his company repeatedly petitioned the agency to allow coal to be extracted from the north and south barriers - thick walls of coal that run on both sides of the tunnels and help hold up the mine.

That stands in stark contrast to statements Murray made Monday asserting that his company's mine plan, and that of the previous owner, were one and the same.

Documents on file with the Utah Division of Oil Gas and Mining show Andalex had previously decided not to mine those barriers, determining it posed a risk to worker safety.

"There was a change of philosophy there," said Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA attorney and Kentucky mine official. "It's certainly very questionable. They wanted to get as much coal out of it as they can."

Calls to the company's attorney and spokesman Michael McKown were not returned Tuesday.

In February and March, the company did "retreat mining" in the north barrier, a practice that involves cutting away the remaining support pillars to extract the last coal deposits, leaving the roof to fall in.

Those who watched Bob Murray during the rescue attempt would have been hard pressed to miss his confrontational demeanor and his air of certainty. Having been around coal mining in my younger days, Murray is typical of many of the operators I've encountered.

Why Murray would see fit to misrepresent the type of mining taking place is somewhat puzzling given the likelihood that the mining records would be made public. I suspected then, and I suspect now, that Murray has been attempting to parse words in order to deflect the inevitable criticism.

In my own experience, it isn't unusual for there to be an ongoing battle between mine operators and MSHA...with mine owners frequently involve attorneys as they attempt to avoid cost creating rulings on the part of the government agency. It's a classic case of big business seeking to subvert regulations in order to improve the bottom line.

While I have witnessed valid arguments coming from both sides of these disputes, all too often the impact on the actual miners isn't the primary consideration. Mining is undoubtedly a risky endeavor...both from a financial standpoint for the operators and with regards to those who actually remove the coal.

In recent years, it appears that MSHA has acquiesced to the owner/operators. Given the recent spate of accidents, I would argue that the emphasis needs to return to the safety of the miners.


I've not written about the most recent mining disaster in deference to the feelings of the families who may have lost loved ones. Given the possibility that the rescue efforts are about to halt, I felt it was the right time to address the issue and the ongoing disregard for mine safety...a disregard that has become more evident since the Sago Mine disaster in early 2006.

Thought Theater previously posted on the differences between safety standards present in the Canadian coal mining industry and those here in the United States...differences that can be directly traced to saved lives in Canada...and lost lives here in the United States. I highly recommend that readers take the time to read that posting which can be found here.

Adding to the egregious nature of this most recent disaster is the fact that the man appointed by President Bush to head the Mine Safety & Health Administration was met with significant Congressional opposition (bipartisan) due to legitimate concerns about his safety credentials...yet the President still chose to proceed...awarding the position to Richard Stickler by virtue of a recess appointment.

Today, the Washington Post offers more details on the subject...raising more doubts as to the merits of the appointment.

Members of Congress, union officials and worker advocates were skeptical before the Aug. 6 accident that Richard Stickler was dedicated enough to worker safety.

Now all three groups are pointing out mistakes they say Stickler has made in handling attempts to rescue six trapped miners. The situation grew more grim last week when three rescue workers were killed in a subsequent cave-in.

Critics think any investigation of the accident will ultimately ask why MSHA signed off in June on a mining plan for the area where the collapse occurred.

Experts have said the terrain there was already risky for the type of mining the operators wanted to do. Concerns about the roof's stability after a cave-in damaged another part of the mine in March made MSHA's approval even more questionable, they say.

But the mine workers union and others say Stickler has failed to change the climate at MSHA from one of "really coddling mine operators," said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, which opposed Stickler's appointment and is calling for an independent investigation of the accident.

In the early days of the rescue, the bespectacled Stickler was regularly upstaged during news conferences by the mine's blustery co-owner, Bob Murray, who used press conferences to rail against his critics and insist that an earthquake - not a structural failure - caused his mine to collapse.

Critics say Murray has a reputation as a bully in the industry and he has openly criticized MSHA's inspectors. Murray's dominance led many observers to wonder whether Stickler was able - or willing - to control the scene.

In fairness, Stickler has his defenders and he earned praise for releasing a candid report on the Sago Mine disaster. Regardless, questions remain about Mr. Stickler's allegiance to mine operators and their economic considerations. As he is confronted with requests to implement improved safety measures designed to protect the miners...measures that would be costly to operators...there is concern he will defer to the wishes of these powerful and influential company executives.

Stickler's meek performance at Crandall contrast to the brash demeanor of Bob Murray, owner of the mine...simply heightened the nagging concerns. When Stickler's actions are coupled with the Bush administration's propensity to defer to big business and afford them with significant regulatory leeway (think toys contaminated with lead), it is difficult to conclude that safety is a priority. Factor in a review of the superior Canadian mine safety measures and the picture isn't very pretty.

Sadly, it seems that miners suffer an injustice akin to that referenced in the well known adage, "Out of sight, out of mind". It's time to prioritize their well-being and enact measures focused upon improving mine safety in America.

The following video clip is from Countdown with Keith Olbermann. He discusses the Stickler appointment and speaks with Arianna Huffington on the need to pass legislation meant to provide better safety.

Keith Olbermann On Mine Safety & The Bush Administration

Tagged as: Bob Murray, Canada, Coal Mining, Crandall Canyon Mine, George Bush, MSHA, Richard Stickler, Sago Mine

Daniel DiRito | August 22, 2007 | 1:30 PM
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