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Experts questioning stability of collapsed Utah mine

PAUL FOY and JENNIFER TALHELMAssociated Press WriterGlenwood Springs, CO Colorado

HUNTINGTON, Utah (AP) Frustrations mounted Tuesday over the slow pace of digging to free six trapped Utah miners as experts questioned the pre-collapse retreat mining that may have left the mine dangerously unstable.Some mining companies consider the type of work done at Utahs Crandall Canyon so dangerous, they will leave behind coal rather than risk the safety of their workers.Video images taken early Tuesday showed miners doing more repair than rescue work to a heavily damaged mine shaft. They were only a third of the way to the presumed location of the trapped miners eight days after a thunderous collapse blew out the walls of mine shafts.A top mining executive estimated the digging would take up to another week.Its not fast enough for me, said Bob Murray, chief of Murray Energy Corp., co-owner and operator of the Crandall Canyon mine. Its very painful.Exhausted relatives, now in their ninth day of waiting for any word about the miners, have steadfastly avoided reporters. Each day and night, they huddle at a Huntington junior high school to receive rescue updates from mine officials, then speed off without comment.Miners are advancing more quickly, but much of their time is spent shoring up walls and ceilings before a 65-ton machine can safely resume clawing away at the rubble-filled mine shaft.Were doing the very best we can as fast as we can, said Richard Stickler, head of federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. You couldnt get another person into that working area.Only one coal excavator can work the narrow mine shaft, he said. Around the clock, shifts of 80 miners are digging away and helping to remove the coal rubble.A mining worker man who says he was the last to see the six men before the collapse said the slow progress is understandable because company and government officials are also concerned for the safety of rescuers. But that didnt stem his frustration.They do have a good point … we dont want to lose 15 more going after six, Jameson Ward, 24, who lives two doors down from trapped miner Brandon Phillips, told The Associated Press. Ward helped Phillips get his job.But there has to be a way to go faster. Its just too slow.Above ground, crews drilling another camera hole were about halfway to breaking into a rear section of the mine where they believed the men may have retreated. Murray said it could take another day for the drill hole to break through.A second drill hole, also 8 and 5/8ths of an inch wide, is being used to pump fresh air into the mine. Officials are taking air samples from a smaller hole at 2 1/2 inches.The mine may have been made more dangerous by what Murray acknowledged was decades of retreat mining before he took over the coal mine a year ago. Murray said no retreat mining was taking place at the time of the collapse, which he insists was triggered by an earthquake. Government seismologists dispute this, saying the mines collapse registered as an earthquake.Theres no connection between retreat mining and the natural disaster that occurred here, Murray said Tuesday. Ive said that from the beginning, and thats the way it will eventually come out.Mine safety experts say that two sections of the Crandall Canyon Mine that collapsed in March may have been an early warning sign.They questioned whether the company and the government agency that oversees its work should have closed the mine then.Instead, operators moved to another southern section and continued chipping away at the coal.In this case, the company made a decision knowing all the issues they made a conscious decision to keep mining because they wanted to recover that coal, said Tony Oppegard, a former top federal and state of Kentucky mine safety official who represents miners as a private attorney in Lexington, Ky.The experts now think Crandall Canyon was particularly unstable because of a combination of factors.The section the miners were working was being carved out in a pattern like streets on a city block, leaving pillars to hold up the ceiling.Officials at the Mine Safety and Health Administration say they had approved a plan to allow the operators to retreat mine there. Retreat mining is a common though sometimes dangerous practice in which miners yank out the pillars, grabbing the last of the coal.Experts question the decision to allow retreat mining, however, because the area is bordered by two outer sections that had already been mined and collapsed, using a technique that leaves behind unstable rubble.That means the last pillars were bearing much of the weight of the roughly 2,000 feet of mountain above, and as they were pulled down, the pressure on the remaining pillars would have increased.Larry Grayson, who worked in coal mining for nine years until 1984 and is now a professor of energy and mineral engineering at Pennsylvania State University, said the practice is so risky that the mining company he worked for wouldnt retreat mine between two sections of rubble.The mining strategy at Crandall Canyon just didnt work, he said. There was no advance notice, and just wham-o.Murray has said that federal regulators and an outside mining engineering firm had signed off on the canyons mining operation.Associated Press writers Chris Kahn, Alicia A. Caldwell and Jennifer Dobner in Huntington contributed to this report.


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