HUNTINGTON, Utah – With six trapped coal miners all but left for dead in a crumbling mountain, families and friends vented their frustration at the mine’s owner Tuesday and asked: Was it too dangerous to be working there in the first place?
At a funeral Tuesday for one of the three rescue workers killed, a friend of one of the trapped miners confronted mine co-owner Bob Murray and accused him of skimping on the rescue efforts. He then handed Murray a dollar bill.
“This is just to help you out so you don’t kill him,” the man said.
Murray’s head snapped back as if slapped. When the man wouldn’t take back the bill, Murray threw the money on the ground. “I’ll tell you what, son, you need to find out about the Lord,” Murray said.
It was an emotional exchange with an owner who had insisted since the collapse that rescue of the miners was his top priority. And it revealed more than just the frustration of people in this mining community in central Utah’s coal belt, where most still speak in whispers when criticizing the officials whose businesses pay their bills.
Critics are now openly saying the mine was a disaster waiting to happen and pointing fingers at Murray Energy Corp. and the federal government as the agents of the tragedy.
Miners’ advocates have accused the Mine Safety and Health Administration in recent years of being too accommodating to the industry at the expense of safety. And they say MSHA was too quick to approve the mining plan at Crandall Canyon despite concerns that it was too dangerous for mining to continue when Murray bought the place a year ago.
“No one took the time to see that it was a recipe for disaster,” Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, said Tuesday.
In question is the decision to allow Crandall Canyon’s operators to mine between two sections that had already been excavated using a mining technique that causes the roof to collapse.
In that middle section, the mine was cut like a city block, leaving pillars of coal holding up the mountain above. MSHA approved a plan allowing the operators to pull out the pillars, a practice called “retreat mining,” which causes deliberate, controlled roof cave-ins.
Experts think any investigation will focus on why MSHA agreed to that plan.
Those conditions are so unstable, some companies will leave behind the last of the coal rather than risk lives trying to pull additional pillars, experts have said.