Utah town torn over future of collapsed mine

Lost miners' families angry with notion of sealing fallen tunnel to resume work

August 22, 2007|By New York Times News Service

HUNTINGTON, Utah -- As relatives laid to rest one of three men killed trying to rescue six trapped miners yesterday, this grieving mining town was torn over the future of the mine and the prospect of the lost miners being entombed permanently.

Officials with the Crandall Canyon Mine said they could be back in business soon under a new name, after first blocking off the portion of their operations that collapsed on Aug. 6. The mine's co-owner, Robert Murray, suggested that parts of the mine remain safe enough for work and that mining should resume.

"We would abandon any effort to mine there," Murray said outside the mine last night, referring to the site of the initial collapse where the six miners remain trapped. "But the reserves are in an entirely different place."

Before mining could begin, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration would have to approve a plan by the owner, Murray Energy Corp., showing it was safe, a spokesman for the agency said.

The suggestion that the mine might reopen enflamed the emotions of the families of the trapped miners, who questioned how the mine could be safe enough for work but not for rescuing their trapped relatives. The rescue effort was halted on Thursday after an access tunnel caved in, killing two miners and a federal mine safety employee.

"They just don't believe that they're gone," said Sonny J. Olsen, a lawyer from the nearby town of Price who is a spokesman for the families. "And if they seal that mine up, they'll never know if these people died from a lack of food, water, or oxygen. They just won't know."

But others, torn between safety concerns and the desire to make a living in the only major industry here, said that they would choose a paycheck, despite their grief.

"I can't leave, to do what?" said Brendan Jones, a miner who is the nephew of Dale Rae Black, one of the miners killed in the unsuccessful rescue attempt who was buried yesterday. "The coal mine or the power plant is your baseline income here."

Outside a memorial service for Black on Monday night, Jones' father, Russell, a semi-retired miner, recalled that even before this latest tragedy he had begged his son not to go into coal mining. "It's just dangerous," he said. "You don't want to have your kids go in there."

Others who had worked in the mine said they had felt safe and would work there again.

Jim Hanna has worked as a supervisor at the mine. "I would have been going in that Monday morning," said Hanna, who was on leave because of a back injury. "I've never seen anything like this. It tears me up."

But Hanna said he would be back at work as soon as his back gets better. "That's just coal miners," he said.

Amanda Hight, a graduate student in nearby Price, said if the mine remained closed, "then you have a ghost town."

"It's tricky," Hight said, "because there are people's jobs at stake."

The families want a 36-inch hole drilled into the area where the miners likely retreated, an opening large enough to lift a man out. The mine owners have resisted such a plan so far, having not found signs of life; but even if the miners are dead, the families say they want the bodies to be recovered.

Utah state officials questioned the safety of the mine and its oversight by federal officials yesterday.

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