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Handling of mine disaster questioned

US safety agency may face scrutiny

Ryan Wilson, 27, does some landscaping in front of a sign supporting the trapped miners yesterday in Huntington, Utah. Ryan Wilson, 27, does some landscaping in front of a sign supporting the trapped miners yesterday in Huntington, Utah. (Jae c. hong/associated press)

WASHINGTON -- The government agency overseeing coal mine safety was supposed to have changed its ways after West Virginia's deadly Sago Mine disaster. Its handling of the cave-ins at Utah's Crandall Canyon Mine have some worried that the changes didn't go far enough.

A microphone lowered last night into a fourth hole drilled into the collapsed coal mine showed no signs of six men trapped for nearly two weeks, another blow in a rescue effort that has killed three other people.

On Friday, government officials had indefinitely halted their attempts to reach the miners trapped since Aug. 6, after a cave-in Thursday night killed three rescuers and injured six others.

House Education and Labor Committee chairman Representative George Miller and Representative Lynn Woolsey, both California Democrats, vowed to convene hearings about the disaster "at the appropriate time," and Utah lawmakers also promised tough questions.

"We're going to see changes in this industry because of this accident," said Ellen Smith, owner of the industry newsletter Mine Safety and Health News.

Mine Safety and Health Administration director Richard Stickler had already come under fire for being slow to take public control of the scene.

Even though Stickler's agency is supposed to be in charge, the mine's co-owner, Bob Murray, has dominated news conferences, narrated video of rescue efforts for TV news, and -- despite safety concerns -- personally led reporters and family members on a tour of his mine.

The fact that the federal agency let anyone, including rescuers, into the still-dangerous mine is raising new questions. Others also predict greater scrutiny of the agency's decision to allow mining at Crandall Canyon at all, given what it knew about conditions that made the mine particularly unstable.

"Despite misleading and self-serving comments to the contrary . . . these miners' lives were jeopardized because of the acts of men," Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America International, said Friday. He expressed doubts about whether the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the mine's owners "fulfilled their responsibilities" to keep the miners and their rescuers safe.

Three high-profile accidents, including Sago, where 12 miners were killed, helped make 2006 the deadliest for coal mining in 11 years. The 47 deaths that year triggered sweeping changes to the nation's coal mining laws.

Observers of the Crandall Canyon accident have criticized MSHA for not heeding a key provision of the new, post-Sago law, which requires the government to be primary communicator with the mine operator, the media, and public when an accident occurs.

The goal was to prevent a repeat of the confusing and conflicting information that was given at Sago. After anxious hours of waiting for a rescue there, family members were told their loved ones were found alive -- only to be told three hours later that all but one were dead.

Observers say they have heard echoes of Sago in the way Murray has upstaged Stickler at news conferences since the first day.

Lawmakers have noted that it took the agency at least two days to take public control of the scene. Others were irate that Murray was allowed to predict success -- and contradict the agency -- while its officials quietly looked on.