Utah Mine Disaster: Murray Needs to STHU

08/14/2007: Part of me wants to empathize with Bob Murray, owner of the Crandall Canyon mine, the collapse of which has left six miners buried with rescue attempts very slow. The media went after him quickly, and he fought back with a vengeance.

Unfortunately, that only works if you provide substance, and Murray has made some very false statements–jumping to conclusions before appropriate investigations were complete, and has made promises of “definitive news” while failing to deliver.

His combative style is damaging his ability to communicate effectively, as he is provoking the “methinks the gentleman doth protest too much” response. Topping it all off, he has made some claims that have turned out to be false and therefore damaging to his credibility.

The miners are still trapped, and so far he has asserted that (1) an earthquake caused the collapse, (2) the collapse had nothing to do with “retreat mining”, and (3) retreat mining was not being used at the time of the collapse.

(1) I believe the experts at the U.S. Geological Survey: the collapse caused the seismic event, not the other way around. They are smart enough to know the difference between an earthquake and a mine collapse, and they are almost always correct in their assessments of seismic events. Murray would have done well to keep his mouth shut on that one.

(2) Apparently, the mining that he had performed–that included highly-risky “Retreat Mining”–had been approved by engineering firms and the government. That hardly makes it ethical. Engineering firms–even government agencies–sign off on things all the time, and that does not necessarily make the practice safe. An engineering firm–if run by unscrupulous people (and all professions have a them in their ranks)–can let money override their better judgement. Government agencies often allow matters to get buried in bureaucratic morass. 

If I am an engineer and I believe–in my professional judgement–that something is risky, then I have an ethical obligation to raise the red flag, even if others have endorsed it. Apparently, other miners raised concerns about the stability of that mine. To what extent did Murray–or the Mine Safety and Health Administration–act on those concerns? What engineers evaluated that mine? What did they see, and what were their bases for keeping the mine open?

(3) The issue is not whether “retreat mining” was in practice at the time, but rather (a) whether it was in practice at that mine at any time before or up to the collapse, (b) what effect did that mining have on the stability of the mine, (c) what warning signs were there in the months before the collapse, and (d) who acted on what?

Back in March, two sections of the Crandall mine collapsed.

When that happened, what course of action did Murray take? Which engineering firms did he hire? Were those the same firms that were involved in the retreat mining of prior years? Who were the government investigators involved? What information did they see? How did they reach the conclusions they reached?

Here is an example of a Murrayism:

There’s no connection between retreat mining and the natural disaster that occurred here…I’ve said that from the beginning, and that’s the way it will eventually come out.

He doesn’t know that. Fact is, this may not be a natural disaster; it could easily be a consequence of loss of structural integrity due to past mining. (I would suggest that it is.)

This could be a catastrophic phenomenon that resulted in spite of sound engineering practices; it could also be the result of professional and/or criminal negligence. This is why we need a thorough public investigation. 

At any rate, Murray needs to drink a big cup of STHU and show some humility on the matter.

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