Steamboat Springs Last week's federal citation of Twentymile Coal Co. is cause for immediate concern and demands a strong, clear response from mine officials, especially in light of recent coal mine-related tragedies elsewhere in the country.
Twentymile Coal Co.'s Foidel Creek Mine on Routt County Road 27 employs more than 500 workers from across the region. These workers are our friends, neighbors and family members. Perhaps that's why it was so disconcerting to learn that the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration cited Twentymile on Sept. 19 for failing to submit an Emergency Response Plan that complies with the requirements of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, approved by Congress in June 2006.
This statement from the MSHA is particularly troubling:
"MSHA has approved Emergency Response Plans for all but one of the 455 operating underground coal mines in the United States. The Foidel Creek Mine is the single remaining underground coal mine without an approved Emergency Response Plan. Plans must address post-accident communications, tracking, lifelines and increased air supplies for trapped miners."
The risks of coal mining have been horrifyingly apparent in recent months.
The Aug. 6 collapse at the Crandall Canyon coal mine in Utah led to the deaths of six workers and three rescuers. In March, two miners died in a fire at a West Virginia coal mine. An explosion in January 2006 killed 12 coal miners at the Sago mine, also in West Virginia.
According to MSHA statistics, there have been 24 fatalities at coal mines this year, and 47 in 2006. We have been fortunate, and diligent, in Routt County - there have been no deaths at the mine since at least 1995, the earliest year with available data.
Credit for that record and for safety efforts at Twentymile is certainly due to St. Louis-based Peabody Energy, which has owned the mine since 2004 and describes itself as the world's largest coal company. Peabody says it takes pride in safety efforts at the mines it operates in the U.S., Australia and Venezuela. Twentymile not only produces a vital resource, but it is also a huge contributor to the Northwest Colorado economy and local charities.
We believe a stronger response is needed in the wake of last week's federal citation.
"Twentymile believes it has submitted a very progressive plan and believes MSHA has approved similar plans at other operations," Peabody spokesman Derrell Carter said last week. "Twentymile continues to work with the agency via its formal review process to come to a resolution that meets our collective standards for the maximum safety of our employees. We are surprised that MSHA has chosen to issue a press release while the matter is still pending."
Pending or not, it is hard to fault the MSHA for shining light on what it believes is an inadequate emergency plan. The stakes are simply too high. Twentymile officials need to present a publicly-accessible emergency plan that meets, if not exceeds, federal requirements and ensures the safety of our workers.
There is no reason to wait for the canary - by then, it will be too late.