Coal Tattoo

Remembering the Wilberg Mine Disaster


An MSHA photo shows the monument to the Wilberg miners with the monument’s creator, Gary Prazen.

Hey folks, Coal Tattoo is back up and running … I hope everyone had a good Christmas.

There’s always lots to catch up on, and I wanted first to point out  a commentary by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis remembering the Dec. 19, 1984, Wilberg Mine Disaster in Utah. Among other things, Solis writes:

Twenty-seven lives might have been saved if properly ventilated and effective escape routes had existed. It was a harsh and costly lesson to learn. As with most mining tragedies, however, it also gave way to improvements in mine safety. These included the development of smaller self-contained self-rescuers that can be readily available to miners, keeping tailgate entries open, and preventing roof falls on longwalls to help miners easily escape in the event of an emergency. Specific protections were also added for miners working in Utah’s unique geologic conditions, and each one is an important step forward in safety.

That line about SCSRs seems to be a bit of an exaggeration, given that the Sago and Darby disasters and the Aracoma Mine fire suggested problems  with the number and location of SCSRs — as well as the training of miners to use them — remained long after the rules MSHA put in place following Wilberg. MSHA and various mining states made more changes in the last four years, but Davitt McAteer’s special report on the Sago disaster called for even more reforms to make SCSRs more reliable for miners.


Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, right, during a visit earlier this year to a West Virginia coal mine.  Photo by Ben Adducchio, W.Va. Public Broadcasting

And it’s also interesting that Solis mentioned “specific protections were added for miners working in Utah’s unique geologic conditions,” given the Crandall Canyon disaster and what it revealed about MSHA’s failure to ensure the safety of miners working in those very conditions.

The Obama administration’s MSHA chief, Joe Main, has promised to study the unique dangers of mining in “deep cover” mines in Utah, but that issue isn’t part of the agency’s regulatory agenda, announced earlier this month.

In marking the anniversary of Wilberg, my buddy Mike Gorrell at the Salt Lake Tribune reminded us that Main was involved in rescue efforts at Wilberg as the safety director of the United Mine Workers of America union.  Gorrell quoted Main:

I still think about Wilberg a lot. It crosses my mind for different reasons. But for the families and the co-workers, it never leaves. It’s a scar they’re left with for life. I have a better appreciation for that, for the collateral damage of these catastrophic accidents.

It’s interesting to note that the Bush administration’s first MSHA chief — and the man responsible for dismantling many safety protections for miners during Bush’s term — was also involved in Wilberg. As I wrote for the Washington Monthly a few years ago:

On December 19, 1984, a fire broke out deep inside the company’s Wilberg mine, near Orangeville, in the mining region south of Salt Lake City. At the time, the mine was trying to set a twenty-four-hour production record. Twenty-six men and one woman died. MSHA investigators blamed the fire on various safety violations. But [Dave] Lauriski, a young mining engineer who was promoted to a top job for quickly getting the mine running after the accident, testified during a 1987 congressional hearing that “[i]mprovements in safety … before the fire were impressive.” He later left the company to run his own mine-consulting firm.

Anyway, the Salt Lake paper also has a photo gallery of Wilberg on its Web site, and this previous story by Gorrell is also worth a read.