Professor talks of important lessons from Utah mine disaster

10/24/2007 | By: Staff Report  |

Dan Taylor has had many different roles during his 28-year career at the University, from professor to department head to chair of the Nevada Faculty Alliance.

He has performed at a high level at each one.

Yet, this summer when news of the tragedy at Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah began to break, Taylor was called upon to play a different sort of role. As the nation tried to make sense of the scene at Crandall Canyon—where on Aug. 6 six miners were trapped about 3.4 miles from the mine's entrance, some 1,500 feet underground—Taylor became a mining engineering spokesperson of sorts. He was invited to appear on National Public Radio's "On Point" public affairs show from Boston University.

For the next two weeks, Crandall Canyon's rescue efforts would grip the nation as CNN provided hour-by-hour coverage, and all of the television network news and major newspapers in the country reported from the scene in Emery County, Utah, with the Wasatch Plateau Coal Field as backdrop. On Aug. 16, tragedy struck again when the mine collapsed for a second time, killing three rescue workers and injuring six others. On Sept. 1, federal officials called off the search, grimly noting that the bodies of the six trapped miners would probably never be retrieved.

For Taylor, what transpired at Crandall Canyon ran contrary to his own experience. Certainly—and in conversation with the thoughtful and quick-witted professor of mining engineering in the Mackay School of Earth Science and Engineering this theme appears often—he knew that mining could be a hazardous profession. But he also knew that of all the mines he had ever visited, from his home state of Colorado to those in Alaska and stretching well into the modern-day gold mining Mother Lode of eastern Nevada, safety had always been a No. 1 priority.

"Safety is so ingrained in the culture of the modern mining industry, it's always a surprise if something tragic like Crandall Canyon happens," Taylor said. "When you produce mining engineers like we do, the first lesson they must always learn is this: You've got to learn to do your job the right way the first time. If you don't, people could die."

It is this type of passion that has always characterized Taylor's work. He comes from a family where his father was a petroleum engineer, where the petroleum industry was always considered important. Taylor noted with a sly smile that, "I ended up being the black sheep of the family by going into hard rock mining."

He said he's typical of other mining engineers, in that, "I've always been interested in digging in the dirt, crawling around in caves, using machinery and being in the outdoors."

It has been a career he has enjoyed, particularly his time at the University. He joined the faculty in 1979 after teaching for a year at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

Nothing, he said, gives him more pleasure than teaching.

"Truly, what I enjoy most is teaching my students and getting them through four years and seeing them come to the same conclusion that I have ... what a great career mining engineering is," he said. "And then, seeing them all go out and becoming successful. I enjoy teaching, but more than that, it's even better when you see these students of yours become successful professionals."

Taylor provided the nation with an excellent "teachable moment" when he appeared on "On Point," providing a great deal of in-depth thought and analysis and perhaps most importantly of all, context, to what had happened at Crandall Canyon.

Recently, Taylor sat down with John Trent, senior editor for University Communications, to talk about Crandall Canyon, and what its impact might be on the industry, and on future mining engineering students at the University.

Nevada News: Dan, you were one of the individuals that media sought out in the days following the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster, including an appearance on National Public Radio. What are some of your memories of that interview?

Dan Taylor: I was looking at it from a number of different positions. One, with the industry, you're always concerned about the safety of the people that are out there. But also, I was thinking about our students, and that this would probably end up being a good teaching example for them.

The day was kind of scattered in terms of what you could get out of it from the various news reports. I got on Google Earth and found the mine. I'm familiar with the area. I've worked in a mine contracting company and we did some work for a coal mine in that area 30 years ago or so. I've taken students on field trips to the mines, the coal mines, of Utah. I've got a feel for what goes on there. I was able to piece together a lot of what was going in that community based on what I had experienced before, and what I had read in the media that day.

Getting involved with it, and trying to find out what was going on, I pieced some things together. I was mostly out of town when the news first hit. During the early part of the Crandall Canyon story, I missed a couple of (media) opportunities. Then I got the request from the "On Point" radio show from Boston University.

NN: When they invited you on, were you expected to be an advocate for the industry, or were you there to be an impartial scientist?

DT: I think they were trying to find something with some technical expertise. They probably assumed some advocacy on my part, but on the other hand, they were calling up a university, and we're supposed to be fair brokers of knowledge, and that's what I tried to do.

I ended up being perhaps more of an advocate, because there was at least one person on the panel who really doesn't have anything good to say about the coal mining industry, although he wasn't as vehement as I was afraid he could have been. I was trying to provide a balanced approach to what was going on, in terms of my knowledge of mining industry and what safety means for the mining industry.

I think that's something that's been blown way out of proportion: that the petty capitalist mining owners have no concern about their workers' safety and they are putting them at risk in pursuit of higher profits. And that really has not been my experience. Modern mining has safety as its No. 1 priority. You go to any modern mining company and look at their operation and you are just bombarded with messages on bulletin boards and on billboards that, "Everyone goes safe everyday ... That's our goal."

Every mining shift begins with a safety meeting to discuss what is going on. Safety has become, over the years, truly integrated into the culture of mining operations. When I hear that the corporation has no concern for the safety of its workers, I get a little defensive on that. It's been my experience that everyone is concerned with safety.

One of the comments I made was that even if a CEO says, "We are going in there and mine this," the engineers are not going to send people into areas that they don't think are safe. That's one of the things we train our mining engineers about: the importance of safety. We've always taught that as part of the curriculum.

NN: When reading major newspapers, in their coverage of the disaster, there were a high number of citations at Crandall Canyon included in their stories. To the layman, it sounded like a lot.

DT: From what I could see, from 1,500 miles away, they seemed to be doing a reasonable industry standard job. Not being there on the ground, I can't tell for sure. The other thing that happened with the fatalities of the rescuers ... that was truly unfortunate. It probably occurred because they were skirting the edges of safety with the idea that they had to get the trapped miners out of there.

In my opinion, the guys that were killed in this rescue effort were every bit as heroic as the first-responders that were killed during 9/11. You're not going to fault these guys for going in there to try to save lives.

One of the themes from the discussion was that we need better communications. You can't just have cell phones underground. Cell phones don't work through solid rock. You can have wireless communications, but you've got to have repeaters so you can shoot this thing down line of sight. And in a coal mine, that can be difficult.

It's a big issue. It's probably solvable. But one of the big things that are going to have happen is there needs to be increased research funding. The government, several years ago, did away with the U.S. Bureau of Mines, which was the country's No. 1 research organization. A lot of that research in health and safety is being done through National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health, which is part of the CDC and National Institutes of Health.

But still, if you look at what their budget is for health and safety research in mining compared to when there was a Bureau of Mines, there have been drastic cuts in that. Where's the research? Everyone in Congress is crying out for better safety ... and yet, where's the funding going to come from?

We used to have a pretty good system of distribution of federal research funding down to the university level. Mackay participated in that back in the 1980s. We put together the structure that you had some guaranteed funding through the bureau so we could pursue long-term research for health and safety.

In 1979, inspection and safety enforcement was moved from the Department of Interior to the Department of Labor. But that separated then the enforcement from the research, and then 10 or 15 years later, research was moved into Health and Human Services.

You've got a bureaucracy that does not facilitate the research end or the enforcement of the safety system, and that's a big problem.

NN: If the system isn't as efficient as it should be, then how do we go about changing it?

DT: If I could wave my magic wand and reorganize government, I could probably make lots of things better.

I don't think anyone is going to really go for a major reorganization. I do think that coming out of all of these congressional investigations, and tightening up the laws and regulations, I think somebody needs to talk about the funding for research. Think what we could do. We could solve the problem of wireless communication. I do think as congress goes through this and mandates better safety, they've got to be cognizant of the fact that there is going have to be an incredible amount of research that needs to go into solving these problems to make the mines safer.

It can be done, but it's not free. With two disasters in as many years, maybe that's the kind of the thing that will get people's attention.

NN: As a professor of mining engineering, how do you bring the Crandall Canyon tragedy home to your students? Can it become some of the lessons you impart in the classroom?

DT: Absolutely. I teach a class in the spring for our graduating seniors in risk management and risk communication. Part of that is to make sure everyone is aware of the constituencies that are involved in mining operations that all have to be communicated with. Going back to the Sago Mine disaster (the 2006 explosion in a West Virginia mine killed 12 miners, the nation's worst mining tragedy in five years) and how the constituencies, the families of the workers, the workers themselves, the other people in the state, the press, government agencies all the way up to Congress, and looked at how do you deal with this sort of thing. It's especially so critical on the ground, where at Sago they announced that everyone was alive, and then two hours later ... no, they weren't alive. That will go down in the annals of crisis communications along with Exxon's president saying, "Oh, there's no big deal ... we have a small leak in the Valdez." That class isn't specifically on safety, but it's more in terms of how you deal with the crisis communications associated with these situations.

What I try and do in talking about risk assessment and management is point out the difference between the hazardous situation and the dangerous situation. A dangerous situation is a situation where you have not dealt with the hazard. We're trying to incorporate more formalized risk assessment and management in our curriculum—we've been asked by the mining companies to do this. They've come to us and said, "You need to put more risk analysis into your curriculum."

We have not yet put together a formal course called "risk management" into the curriculum, but we may get to a point where we do this. We still build this into every class, and we need to build this in from the very first class our students ever take. You can't just learn about the drilling and the blowing things up and hauling things away. You are responsible for the health and safety, as an engineer, for the people who are working for you.

NN: What did you think of the Murray CEO's decision to let cameras into the mine (Murray Energy Corporation owned the Crandall Canyon Mine, and Robert Murray was the CEO)?

DT: I think the problem with having cameras in mines is that you need someone to explain what is going on, because it can seem so chaotic. I can look at that footage and say, "This is obvious to me what they're doing." But someone who doesn't understand what is going on will look at it ... and it will seem like Dante's Inferno.

NN: You're exactly right. It was fascinating to watch, but there was no context given.

DT: I think he had a tough choice there to make. He was certainly within his rights to say no. On the other hand, if you don't allow cameras in there, people will say, "Well, what's he hiding in there?" He probably didn't have much of a choice in that.

Many of the reporters that go into these situations with no background or knowledge of the industry. They always seem to get it wrong. And it's because of a lack of understanding of what's going on there. For example, the term "shaft." Shaft means something very specific in mining. It means a vertical opening. Horizontal openings are never a shaft to a miner. It might be a drift or a cross-cut or a tunnel, but they are never shafts.

When you hear a reporter say that a miner walked into a mine shaft, you should ask them, "How long did it take them to get the body out of the bottom?" Because if you walk into a mine shaft, that's what happens.

NN: What is your sense of the impact that Crandall Canyon will have on students?

DT: It could be a little oft-putting. The thing is, that's our industry. And it would be like saying that someone wouldn't want to go into aeronautical engineering because of the Challenger disaster. Yes, it is a hazardous industry. Now, on the other hand, there are mining engineers out there that are exposed to no more hazards than paper cuts. My first accident on the job occurred in an office. I was trying to cut something with a pair of scissors and took a chunk out of my hand.

Most mining engineers are people who usually want to get down in the dirt, or at least want to have the option. My friends over the years in the industry still like to go underground and see what's going on. Mining engineers tend to be hands-on people. Engineers in general tend to be that way.

It would surprise me if we lost people out of the program because of this. I'm not saying that there shouldn't be a lot of concern. The kids in our program should be asking, "So what does this mean? How dangerous of a field is this field I'm contemplating to get into?"

I don't think it's going to have a negative impact on the number of people we ultimately end up graduating.

Long-term, for the education of our students, this is going to be beneficial, because we can use it as a teaching opportunity, including pointing out, "What happens when you get it wrong."

That's one of the really important things about mining engineering. You've got to do it right, because if you get it wrong, people will die.


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