Utah Coal Mine Closed Over Safety Problems

April 4, 2008

The deepest coal mine in the United States abruptly shut down, a week after the company was hit with a huge safety fine and was being assessed for other violations at a nearby mine.

UtahAmerican Energy Inc. said “unexpected and unusual stress conditions” forced it to indefinitely close the Tower mine seven miles north of Price, Utah, for the safety of miners. The mine was slapped with $420,000 in fines for “flagrant” safety violations involving explosive hazards on March 20.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration issued another set of fines on March 28 for “flagrant” violations at the West Ridge coal mine, also owned by UtahAmerican Energy, a subsidiary of Ohio-based Murray Energy Co. The privately held company was caught in a national spotlight last August when nine people died in two cave-ins at Crandall Canyon mine, also in Utah’s coal district.

Companies can be assessed a flagrant violation at up to $220,000 for a known danger they fail to correct or for showing a “total disregard” for safety, said Kevin Stricklin, who oversees coal mine safety for MSHA. His agency refused to release a copy of the citations for West Ridge until they were delivered to the company.

UtahAmerican’s president, P. Bruce Hill, announced the shutdown of the Tower mine in a terse statement. Reached at his office, Hill refused to say if the mine was being closed for good or answer any other questions. Corporate officials did not return phone or e-mail messages.

Price Mayor Joel Piccolo said he would be surprised if Murray Energy abandoned the Tower mine.

“The resource is too rich there. With newer technology down the road, I guarantee you that they’ll finish that mine. It’s tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars there,” he said.

But the Tower mine, 2,750 feet deep, was plagued by explosive methane emissions, said Dave Tabet, energy and minerals program manager for the Utah Geological Survey.

“As they were getting deeper they were encountering more gas and had to spend more time ventilating and they couldn’t produce as much coal,” Tabet said. “For a while they shut it down to drill more ventilation wells. Maybe they were having additional bounce problems as well.”

A bounce is a violent shift inside a mountain. Miners say they can feel a bounce in their bones if rockfall doesn’t kill them first. Utah’s coal mines set off thousands of bounces a year that register as low-magnitude earthquakes, said Walter Arabasz, director of the University of Utah’s seismograph stations.

It was uncertain how methane and unstable ground played in the company’s decision to shut down the mine, but Huntington city councilwoman Julie Jones said, “I’ve heard some of the coal miners say if they didn’t shut it down it would blow up because it’s gassy. They knew it was a dangerous mine.”

The Tower mine employed upward of 200 people and produced about 2 million tons of coal a year, Tabet said. UtahAmerican said it would offer to transfer many of the Tower miners to West Ridge or other mines operated by Murray Energy in Ohio and Illinois.

Many Utah miners who’ve gone through periodic layoffs with Murray Energy, however, have declined to move to the Midwest.

“The miners live here, work here, recreate here,” Piccolo said.

State unemployment officials said they didn’t know how many of the miners would end up losing a job, but Piccolo said the number could be significant.

“This makes it that much harder for families to hold on to their homes and cars and the life that they deserve,” he said. “It’s not a good thing.”

The shutdown came a day after University of Utah researchers presented findings about the dangers of deep coal mining at a conference at the federal Bureau of Land Management in Salt Lake City.

William Pariseau, a professor of mining engineering, determined the solid coal barriers at Tower were sufficiently large to support the mine, but his analysis did not take into account geologic conditions that could contribute to cave-ins.

“If these operators say they’re seeing things that trouble them, and they won’t continue their operation because its not safe, I believe them,” said Kim McCarter, chairman of the university’s Department of Mining Engineering.

UtahAmerican said Tower is the deepest operating coal mine in the United States. At that depth, the mountain is bearing down on the mine with a force of 3,025 pounds per square inch, McCarter said.

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