Utah Miners and Cranky CEOs

Some readers have been emailing me about the Utah mine disaster saying the mine owners are using some seriously fishy arguments. I am in no way shape or form a geologist, but after reading the coverage of the Utah mine collapse I can’t help thinking the CEO saying it was an earthquake – not a mine collapse caused by unsafe practices – comes across as someone being deceptive.

Scientists believe the seismic waves in the area of the Crandall Canyon mine were “the signature of the collapse and that the collapse was not caused by an earthquake,” said James W. Dewey, a seismologist at the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo.

Scientists have not ruled out a natural earthquake since the region surrounding the mine is seismically active, and they do not know the exact time the mine collapsed.

On Monday, University of Utah seismographs recorded seismic waves of 3.9 magnitude near the mine. At least 10 aftershocks were felt more than 24 hours after the collapse, with the strongest registering 2.2 magnitude.

Scientists say quakes caused by mine collapses tend to occur at shallower depths and at different frequencies than natural earthquakes.

The first motions of the Utah disturbance indicated a downward movement consistent with a collapse, scientists said. If it was a natural quake, it would have produced up and down motions on the seismograms. The quake occurred anywhere from 2,000 to 8,500 feet underground.

Mine officials insisted Monday’s accident was caused by a natural disaster.

“This was caused by an earthquake, not something that Murray Energy … did or our employees did or our management did,” an irate Robert E. Murray, chairman of mine owner Murray Energy Corp. of Cleveland, said at a televised news conference. “It was a natural disaster. An earthquake. And I’m going to prove it to you.”

Then it gets a little disturbing. Usually with industry denialism, it’s things like cherry-picking and other tactics to create a deceptive picture. You need plausible deniability when the full story comes out. However, this Murray guy seems to just be pulling data out of thin air.

The company released a statement saying the depth of the earthquake occurred in a region that was 3,500 feet deeper than where the miners were.

The company also claimed the shaking lasted four minutes. Utah and USGS scientists don’t know exactly how long the shaking lasted, but they said a 3.9 magnitude quake would cause jolts of just a few seconds.

By contrast, the 9.0 magnitude quake in 2004 in the Indian Ocean caused six minutes of shaking, USGS geophysicist John Bellini said.

There have been numerous examples of mine collapses triggering ground vibrations sometimes confused with quakes. The USGS has recorded at least seven such instances since 1994, including last year’s collapse of an abandoned mine in Virginia that registered a 4.3 magnitude.

Although mining activities have been shown to produce quakes, the opposite is rare. Scientists say it’s unusual for a temblor to damage a mine unless it was a big one. In 1976, a 7.8 magnitude quake in China wreaked havoc on coal mines beneath the city of Tangshan.

It’s impossible for me to judge this, I’d like to hear from people with knowledge in the field whether or not this sounds reasonable. To me though, this does not pass the smell test.

Then there is his history of opposing safety and environmental standards and global warming denialism.

Murray, a former miner who survived two accidents on the job before mortgaging his home to found his company, has in the past taken on politicians pushing for more stringent safety measures, the environmental lobby and labor unions.

After last year’s Sago mine disaster in which 12 men were trapped and killed in West Virginia, Murray opposed legislation by lawmakers there and in his home state of Ohio that would require miners to wear emergency tracking devices.

Murray called the proposed legislation “extremely misguided” and accused the politicians of “playing politics with my employees’ safety,” the Columbus Dispatch reported.

Before the mine collapse, the businessman was most well known as a staunch detractor of global warming.

“The science of global warming is suspect,” Murray told the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in June.

At a news conference Tuesday, Murray announced it could take three days for emergency workers to rescue the trapped miners and denied reports that the mine accident was a result of a dangerous procedure called “retreat mining.”

Uh oh. So, we have a guy with a history of playing hands from the denialist deck of cards, with a spattering of global warming crankery seemingly pulling data out of thin air that conflicts with the USGS and other scientists’ analysis. On top of that, there is a suggestion of a specific dangerous practice that would have caused this collapse. Something definitely smells a little ripe by now. But then it gets worse:

He insisted the collapse resulted from an earthquake and accused the United Mine Workers of America labor union of propelling the story about retreat mining in an attempt to organize more workers.

The UMWA has claimed, and media agencies have reported, that the mine was damaged as a result of a practice called retreat mining, in which the pillars of coal holding up the mine’s roof are excavated after all the coal between the columns has been removed.

“Retreat mining had nothing to do with the disaster,” Murray said at Tuesday’s news conference. “It was primary mining on the advance. … There are eight solid pillars where the men are right now. … I’m not going to respond to retreat mining anymore. It was invented by people with motives to damage the coal industry.”

“These individuals have given very false statements. They know nothing about the damage in the mine or the rescue efforts that are under way. I caution the media to very much question the veracity of these sources,” Murray said of the UMWA.

“The UMWA is trying to organize the mine,” he said.

Now we have a conspiracy theory. It’s looking worse and worse for Mr. Murray. I have no reason to trust the union more that Murray, but based on the tactics, I can’t help but be suspicious of Murray. His statements do not pass the smell test here.