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Why is it OK for the coal industry to break the law?

ASK THIS | August 10, 2007

Often after accidents like the one at Crandall Canyon, Utah, mine operators claim their mines had relatively few violations. Even if that's true -- and often it isn't -- 'relatively few' just isn’t good enough in a risky venture like coal mining, says Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward, Jr.

By Ken Ward, Jr.
The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette

As I write this, the news out of Crandall Canyon, Utah, is not looking good. The Associated Press reports that a tiny microphone lowered deep into the earth early Friday picked up no evidence that six coal miners caught in cave-in four days ago were still alive.

The national, and international, media continue their watch over the effort to rescue the miners – and to fill the never-ending television and Internet news cycle.

Media outlets of all stripes have turned mine owner Bob Murray into a household name. CNN got to pat itself on the back for getting its cameras into the mine. Reporters and scientists have dueled with Murray over whether an earthquake caused the mine collapse, or whether the mine collapse simply looked like an earthquake to the seismic detection systems.

But lost among the frenzy are some important questions. Well, maybe they're not lost – but they’re not being asked and answered very bluntly.

First and foremost, why is it acceptable for the coal industry to break the law?

Reporters from various media outlets – many of them thrown into doing stories about an industry they know little about – have held forth for us about whether Bob Murray's mines have a good safety record. Some accounts have concluded that Murray is a safety guru, and that his mines have an outstanding record. The Deseret Morning News quoted a University of Pennsylvania professor who said that other coal miners with disasters in recent years had "in the neighborhood" of 180 to 210 citations, compared with the 33 this year at Crandall Canyon.

The professor, Walter Licht, also opined a common coal industry complaint – that many violations are simply paperwork problems, or minor things that really don't pose much of a safety hazard.

"One of the mine inspectors can be in a mine and see a wrench lying on the ground that somebody can trip on, so they get a citation," Licht told the paper.   

One AP account said that Murray has "campaigned to improve mine safety," while his mines have "incurred millions of dollars in fines over the last 18 months." The AP story quoted another professor, R. Larry Grayson from the University of Missouri-Rolla, as saying the Crandall Canyon Mine had a remarkably good safety record.

"The injury rate for the last four years has been significantly below the national average," Grayson told the AP.

Other accounts have not been as flattering.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting reprised a series of stories that they did a few years ago, in which Murray (in a widely re-produced anecdote), urged federal inspectors to lay off his mines or face the wrath of his friend, Sen. Mitch McConnell, and McConnell's wife, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.

"Mitch McConnell calls me one of the five finest men in America, and last I checked he was sleeping with your boss," Murray told the inspectors, according to notes obtained by public broadcasting.

The reprised public broadcasting story noted a 2001 incident in which a belt foreman at one of Murray's mines, Tom Ciszewski, had his armed ripped off by a conveyor belt and bled to death. Later, the story said, a belt repairman testified that Murray pressured workers not to shut down the belt "unless there's a man in it" and that he would fire them on the spot if they did.

Obviously, these reporters are working under deadline, and doing their best to give their readers, viewers and listeners a glimpse of Murray and his company's safety record.

But the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration engages in the same game in a "question and answer" sheet posted on its website. MSHA notes that Crandall Canyon's accident rates and citations were both below the national averages.

Beneath it all of this seems to be this assumption that violations of federal mine safety and health laws is acceptable – that the coal industry is simply unable to comply with all of the rules that history has taught are needed to protect what Congress declared to be the coal industry's "most previous resource – the miner."

I fall into this trap, too. It's hard not to. Over the years, when one coal company I cover has had miners die at its operations, I've frequently listed the hundreds of violations that those operations have been cited for. Almost every time, the company's publicist calls me to complain that I need to give the story some perspective, that their hundreds of violations aren't really anything out of the ordinary. There are mines around the country that make it through the year without deaths and injuries. Reporters should be asking why they can't all do that, and why they can't all follow the rules all the time. Industry lobbyists and regulators say that they won't settle for anything less than zero injuries and deaths – but then they want to play comparison games to avoid criticism when disaster strikes.

"We need a serious attitude adjustment," said Celeste Monforton, a former federal mine regulator who now teaches and studies at George Washington University. "Violating safety and health standards – and that's what citations are – is illegal.

"If an airplane had 50 safety violations, it sure wouldn't be cleared for takeoff," Monforton said. "Why is it OK for miners to be exposed to 50 or more hazards, and it's considered 'normal?' That attitude must become a thing of the past."

As I watch from our newsroom 1,800 miles away, I also have to wonder again about whether the media goes to far in trying to get scoops about the families of these trapped miners. It's a natural thing to want to tell the public who these men are, and to try to share a bit of what anguish their families are going through. I had one call from a national television network producer who wanted to do a story attacking federal officials for not releasing the names to the media. The public has a right to know, he told me over the phone.

I wondered aloud something along the lines of, "Don't you really mean that your network has the right to background these men, find phone numbers for all their family members, and go harass them during this terrible ordeal?"

I've often argued with federal and state mining regulators to get the names of miners who die on the job – but only after they have died, and after the families have been notified. The media needs to put a face on the issue of mine safety – and even putting the name of every miner killed on the job in the paper helps to do that.

Maybe during this terrible waiting for word of the miners' fate isn't the right time for this.

I'm reminded of the words written by my former Gazette colleague, Scott Finn, after he covered part of the wait for the families of the Sago disaster: “Sometimes we hurt people by our carelessness," he wrote. "In the heat of competition, in our desire to get the story, we sometimes push aside the needs of the people we cover.

"I don't know what the answer is here. In this decentralized system, such media circuses are probably inevitable. That doesn't make them right."

Some media outlets, including the local Salt Lake Tribune, have confirmed the names of most or all of the missing miners. I don't know the details of how they did so, or how intrusive that bit of reporting was. I hope reporters all behaved themselves. We in the media could use a little bit of education on the golden rule. And let's not forget, it's not as if the families caught up in mine rescue situations couldn't find a reporter to talk to – all they have to do is look outside of whatever company office, church or school they are huddled in to pray for the best.

Since the names are out there, we know that several of the miners are Mexican, and that some of their family members don't speak English very well. Maybe reporters need to ask regulators and Bob Murray if safety training, mine maps and various safety plans were provided in Spanish. I asked, and haven't gotten an answer yet.

I've covered the coal industry for a long time. But I learn something new about it every day. And, I still have to wonder why it is that the national media knows so little about an industry that provides the nation with half its electricity.

Despite having covered last year's three major coal-mining disasters, most of the national media still seem a little confused about the basics of coal mining. It's that confusion that led to the initial reporting – and to some continuing to allow Bob Murray to mislead the public – that an earthquake caused this mine collapse, rather than the mine collapse simply mimicking earthquake tremors picked up by seismic monitors.

One national reporter who has tried to lend a little context to the situation is AP's excellent science writer, Seth Borenstein. He was quick out of the box with a story explaining that the Crandall Canyon Mine was using an extremely dangerous form of mining known as "retreat mining," or "pulling pillars."

There are lots of questions reporters need to be asking of both the company, and the federal regulators.

Federal officials are saying the mine hasn't had any serious "roof falls" since  1998. But a roof fall is different from a "bump" such as the one that collapsed the Crandall Canyon Mine roof. Has the mine reported recent bumps? What is the history of bumps in this part of the Utah coalfields? And what role has "pulling pillars" played in bumps in the past?

The mine's maps indicate that Crandall Canyon used longwall mining to remove large amounts of coal on either side of its main entry tunnels. After this was done, the roof would have collapsed, as longwall mining leaves no coal pillars to hold it up. Once Bob Murray bought the mine, his company proposed to go in and get coal from the pillars that were holding up the roof in that central set of tunnels.

What sort of analysis did the company do to determine that this was safe, and would not lead to a bump? What sort of review of that analysis did federal or state regulators perform?

What sort of review of such things is typically done nationwide?

Are the engineers who review such things for the government understaffed? What sort of follow-up inspections of the pillar removal were being done?

Seth's story, which my paper ran on Tuesday, Aug. 7, started to get at these kinds of important questions. For his efforts, Seth was attacked by Bob Murray on national television. And when Murray told the audience that his mine was absolutely not using this mining method – despite a paper trail that suggests otherwise – federal Mine Safety and Health Administration officials stood by and watched, letting the misinformation go unchallenged.

That brings me to my final point. Maybe it made for great television, and correspondent Gary Tuchman was certainly pleased with himself. But pretty much everybody I've talked to in the coal industry thinks that the stunt of taking CNN cameras into the mine while six miners were still unaccounted for was irresponsible and dangerous. It remains unclear to me if MSHA approved this little show or not, despite an existing order that required any activity in the mine to receive the agency's specific authorization.

One longtime coal industry journalist – perhaps the only reporter in the country who exclusively covers mine safety – harshly criticized the move.

"If the news crews want to see what it is like inside of a mine, have them go to one of the tourist mines or another underground mine in Utah that isn't under a rescue mode of operation," wrote Ellen Smith, editor and publisher of Mine Safety and Health News. "If the news crews want to experience the feeling of 'seismic' activity, let them go on Disney's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

"I have defended the record of this mine from the first hour of this accident," Smith wrote. "I have defended the industry and the strides it has made since I began covering mine safety and health issues in 1989.

"But I will not defend what I see as high negligence and reckless disregard on the part of MSHA and Mr. Murray for allowing these people into the mine during this very serious rescue operation when 'seismic activity' continues to occur, and when no one knows why such a catastrophic failure occurred to begin with."

More commentary on media coverage
Posted by Ken Ward Jr. - The Charleston Gazette
08/15/2007, 10:31 AM

The Huffington Post has this interesting commentary on coverage -- especially by The New York Times -- of the Utah mine collapse:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/w ...

Mountaintop Mining
In the Winter 2004 issue of Nieman Reports, Ken Ward described how he went about uncovering a shocking lack of enforcement and a complete absence of oversight as mining companies turned mountains and rich forests into leveled-off grasslands in West Virginia.

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