boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

Frustration mounts over Utah rescue

Analysts question mining methods

In an around-the-clock effort, workers have been attempting to clear the main passageway of the Crandall Canyon Mine in an effort to reach six trapped miners in Utah. In an around-the-clock effort, workers have been attempting to clear the main passageway of the Crandall Canyon Mine in an effort to reach six trapped miners in Utah. (utah america energy via associated press)

HUNTINGTON, Utah -- As frustration mounts over the slow pace of the digging to free six trapped miners, more questions arose yesterday about whether risky mining methods might have left parts of the coal mine dangerously unstable.

Some mining executives consider the "retreat mining" methods used at Utah's Crandall Canyon dangerous and they would rather leave behind coal rather than risk the safety of their workers.

Video images taken early yesterday showed miners working to clear 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.

"It's not fast enough for me," said Bob Murray, chief of Murray Energy Corp., co-owner and operator of the Crandall Canyon mine. "It's very painful."

Much of the rescuers' time is spent shoring up walls and ceilings before a 65-ton machine can resume clawing away at the rubble-filled mine shaft.

"We're doing the very best we can as fast as we can," said Richard Stickler, head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. "You couldn't get another person into that working area."

Around the clock, shifts of 80 miners are digging and helping to remove the rubble.

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 taken refuge in an air pocket. Murray said it could take another day for the drilling to break through.

A second 8-inch drill hole is being used to pump fresh air into the mine. Officials are taking air samples from a smaller hole.

The mine might have been made more dangerous by what Murray acknowledged was decades of digging using retreat mining, a common though sometimes dangerous method in which miners yank out a mine's pillars, grabbing the last of the coal.

Murray said the retreat mining took place before he took over the mine a year ago. He said no retreat mining was taking place at the time of the collapse, which he insists was triggered by an earthquake.

Government seismologists say the mine's collapse registered as an earthquake.

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

Mine safety analysts say two sections of the Crandall Canyon Mine that collapsed in March might 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 section and continued chipping away at the coal.

"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 analysts now think Crandall Canyon was particularly unstable because of a combination of factors.

The section in which the miners were working was being carved out in a pattern like streets on a city block, leaving pillars to hold the ceiling. Officials at the Mine Safety and Health Administration say they had approved a plan to allow "retreat" mining there.

But analysts question that decision because the area is bordered by two 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 about 2,000 feet of mountain above, and as they were pulled down, the pressure on the remaining pillars would have increased.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES