Friday, August 17, 2007

Bread And Circuses: The Home Game

image credit: CDC

The caption reads:Retreat mining pillar line roof fall fatality site, Mingo County, West Virginia

A while back I mentioned that the principle strategy of the Bush Administration was probably to rely on the news, and broadcast news in particular, to deliver bread and circuses to the crowds so they won't start asking uncomfortable questions about how Iraq is doing these days. I thought about this subject last weekend, as I was coming home from a business trip, and whenever the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster was on the news, all we saw was that blowhard president of the mining company, Robert Murray, on the news channels. Where were the seismologists and mine engineers, I wondered? Apparently, Ariana Huffington's been wondering, too:

What if, instead of giving endless airtime to Bob Murray, they had brought on some of the experts we saw last night and asked them questions about the chances of another collapse occurring? What if they had given us Professor Larry Grayson, who was interviewed last night by Dan Abrams on MSNBC, and other experts who could have contradicted once and for all Murray's assertion that the company had not been doing retreat mining where the original collapse had occurred? What if they had gotten Stickler on the record on this, and had him definitely say whether or not Murray was lying when he repeatedly denied the dangerous technique was being used in the Crandall Canyon Mine?

It Shouldn't Have Taken the Deaths of Three Miners to Get the Media to Focus on Mine Safety

Yet my guess is that at this point there are still lots of folks out there who think these things are a matter of debate - did the mine collapse due to two coincidental earthquakes in two weeks? Were they really doing retreat mining? The New York Times elaborates:

But there is little doubt, mine experts said, that retreat mining at extreme depth in Utah, where mine-produced tremors are common, creates a tapestry of forces that adds to mining’s inherent hazards.

First, the six men were working at a depth of more than 1,800 feet, which engineers say is where coal approaches its structural load-bearing maximum. Second, the coal itself, carved into large pillars within the mine, was essentially what held up the weight of the mountain above Crandall Canyon, near Huntington. Third, retreat mining involves removing or reducing the size of those pillars to extract as much coal as possible. Seismic jolts — called bumps or bounces in the language of miners — are often caused by compression of coal pillars and are most common in the deepest mines, like Crandall, where the pillars hold the most weight.

Facing the Multiple Risks of Newer, Deeper Mines

In fact, there should be no debate on the first point, either. Seismologists from the University of Utah, the US Geological Service, and the University of California at Berkeley have all determined that the first seismic event they detected was the result of the mine's collapse, not the cause. On a question like this, I'll believe the guys who make a living figuring out what earthquakes are like over the guy who's trying to avoid a lawsuit or jail time.

On the second question, like Ms. Huffington, I'd like to see serious investigation begin. Unfortunately, as several articles have noted, Richard E. Stickler, who is the director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, is a former coal mining executive, and if he's a typical Bush appointee, not in the least interested in investigating the industry he's supposed to be regulating. According to the Washington Post, MSHA approved Murray's retreat mining plan. This approval came in spite of some indications that the mine was so deep it was a dangerous practice. Read the WaPo article for some added information on that subject.

And thanks to a none-too inquisitive broadcast news, the odds are he'll get away with that lack of curiosity.

UPDATE (Aug. 18): The search for the original missing miners has now been called off thanks to the second cave-in that killed three rescuers.

Tula Connell wrote a wonderful, and some might say prescient, article for FDL after the first cave-in. She pointed to this AP article that mentioned that pointed out that federal inspectors had issued 325 citations against the mine, 116 of which were serious enough that they could cause injuries. I don't know how high that is as mines go, but it sounds pretty high. It's also eerily similar to what was found about the Sago mine after it collapsed.

Connell also mentions that while MSHA director Strickler was an executive there, Massey Coal Co. had an accident rate nearly double that of the industry average. This is the guy the Bush Administration nominated after the Sago disaster to make mines safer.

All this makes you wonder why they don't nominate Osama Bin Laden to be our Secretary of Homeland Security. Oh, that's right, they can't find him.

No comments: