Sunday, August 19, 2007

Salt Lake Tribune: trapped miners may not be found

HUNTINGTON - After a camera lowered through a fourth bore hole again showed no signs of six workers trapped in the Crandall Canyon mine, officials on Sunday acknowledged what many had already feared.

"It's likely that these miners may not be found," Rob Moore, vice president of mine owner Utah Energy Corp., said during a Sunday afternoon news conference.

Video from the latest bore hole drilled from the top of the mine into caverns below showed extensive damage to that area of the mine, and oxygen levels measured at 7 or 8 percent - not enough to support life.

Work is now beginning on a fifth bore hole in a new area where, based on conversations with those who survived the Aug. 6 collapse, the miners might have fled, Moore said. Yet Moore said he expects to find oxygen levels again incapable of supporting life.

When asked if the fifth hole drilled from the top of the mountain will be the last, Moore replied: "We'll need to discuss that further but it may very well be."

Moore's words and somber tone were a shift from almost two weeks worth of statements claiming the work would not stop until the miners were found. As recently as Saturday night, Moore had said the work was a rescue effort and not an attempt to recover bodies.

On Sunday, Moore said he discussed the latest developments earlier in the day with the families of the six trapped men in what he called a "very emotional" meeting.

The six miners, Don Erickson, Manuel Sanchez, Kerry Allred, Luis Hernandez, Brandon Phillips and Juan Carlos Payan, have been missing since Aug. 6 when they were working in a deep section of the mine. Coal and rock blew off the mine's walls and the floor rose up and crumbled, putting as much as 2,500 feet of rubble between rescuers and the miners.

Mine experts believe the event was the mine and mountain settling on top of the rock and coal which had been excavated. Seismologists say the collapse registered as a 3.9 event on the Richter scale.

Then on Thursday, another section of wall collapsed on miners trying to dig out the six trapped men. Dale Ray Black, Gary Jensen, both 48, and Brandon Kimber, 29, died in the collapse and six others were injured.

Work inside the mine to remove the rubble and reach the trapped men has not resumed since the Thursday collapse. The Mining Safety and Health Administration has called in consultants from West Virginia University, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and private business to help figure out if underground efforts to reach the miners is still possible.

MSHA had already consulted the experts in mine support systems, and figured it was installing the maximum possible support in the attempt to make the tunnel safe for a rescue. They were placing 8-inch steel posts and massive wood timbers every 30 inches along the walls, with steel cables and chain link fencing in between.

Richard Stickler, assistant secretary of Labor and head of MSHA, said Saturday night that the Crandall Canyon Mine poses particular difficulties. Support systems are usually designed to support the ceilings from the weight of the earth above, but the movement in the mountain above Crandall Canyon is shifting the pressure to the walls.

"What we have is force coming in from the ribs (sides)," Stickler said.

But, he said, if the experts can devise a way to make mining safe, it will resume.

"If we can design a support system that can ensure the safety....there will be workers quite willing to join that operation."

MSHA has brought in a large mobile meeting room, placing it at the mouth of the mine and equipped it with chairs, tables, maps and projectors. It is near the mine's engineering department, which has extensive mine maps.

The mine owners and federal regulators also have discussed boring a 30-inch-wide hole from the top of the mountain so workers can be lowered and raised in a basket. That hole would be about 1,500 feet long and could take two to three weeks to complete.

Rescuers have now lowered cameras into a total of three bore holes in an attempt to locate the trapped miners. The first two efforts did not yield any signs of the trapped miners, but buoyed hopes as large caverns with the ceiling intact were found. The fourth bore hole was drilled in the area of faint sound picked up by geophones on top of the mine.

[Editor: prayers for the miners and their families. Coal mining is a very dangerous job. The US and China are major users of coal, and unfortunately, we will probably have to keep doing so to some extent to meet our energy needs.

The company Fuel Tech has technology available to significantly decrease NOx and SOx emissions, and to increase efficiency at coal plants. Fuel Tech is a holding in the Winslow Green Growth fund (WGGFX), one of the major clean tech funds. We should certainly hope that this company achieves significant penetration of the domestic and overseas markets, because their technology can significantly decrease emissions and increase efficiency by as much as 10% - meaning less coal for more power.

However, that still doesn't get at the fact that coal mining is very dangerous for the miners, and is environmentally destructive in itself. Environmentalists are upset at utilities lobbying to bring new coal plants on line due to carbon emissions concerns, and they should be. However, we also need to ask ourselves about the ethics behind coal mining. We should, at minimum, want all coal mines to meet the minimum safety standards that many have flagrantly violated, although this particular accident seems not to involve documented safety violations yet.

There are two other factors influencing the ethics behind coal mining. First, the Salt Lake Trib profiles a Mexican worker whose cousin is among the missing; he says high wages often lure Mexicans to the mine (I assume that given the wages, they're able to be here legally under the H2B system).

Second, there aren't a lot of other economic options for residents in a lot of coal counties. Mining makes up 12% of the workforce in Carbon and Emery counties in Utah, compared with 1% of the statewide workforce. It also accounts for 27% of the wages in the two counties - they make around $64,000 a year. I would make that with a Masters degree in Public Health after a few years, but these folks can do it right out of high school. Without the mines, these counties would be in trouble.

And PS, the Episcopal Church in Utah was first formed around mining and railroad communities. St Mark's hospital was created by Daniel Sylvester Tuttle, the first missionary bishop, to serve the miners. Many of them were immigrants.]

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