Crandall Canyon: Sign of the Times

Posted August 24, 2007

“Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines
It’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mine” Merle Travis

“The system is broken.” Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. Aug 23

It now appears the Crandall Canyon, Utah mine collapses have claimed the lives of 9 miners and rescuers, seriously injuring 6 more rescuers.

Crandall Canyon is a non-union mine, and Robert Murray, owner of the Murray Energy company that runs Crandall Canyon, flung accusations and invectives every day against “the union” – the United Mine Workers – and the press in his press conferences. Even worse, the Deseret Morning News is reporting that union miners were kicked out of the rescue effort and told to get off Murray property by management. “We doing everything we can,” they – the bosses – always say reassuringly. Well, yes. Everything to mystify people, shirk responsibility, cut corners and make profits. Yes, “everything,” even murder.

21st century capitalism is not the not dreamworld figured in myths about the workerless “information economy”, where our ads, trends and “networking” are supposed to generate profits out thin air. It’s still very much the same story of exploitation, deception, lies and greed, enormous profits extracted from our very lives.

Murray kept using the word “earthquake” to explain the cause of the initial collapse. In obvious agitation, he’d accuse the press of being union agents if they brought up statements from seismologists who stated the “bump” registered by the initial collapse was just that, a collapse and not an earthquake.

And Katrina was just a bad hurricane? And last year’s Sago disaster was caused by “lighting”, right? “We’re doing everything right,” they’re saying, “it’s just the malicious, evil forces of nature that get in the way.”

Murray was also vehement in his denials that retreat mining – “cutting out the pillars of coal supporting the mountain above the main tunnel and allowing the roof to collapse” – was going on. This technique is dangerous enough to require special permits from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Retreat mining was done in the northern tunnel, where a serious “bump” in March caused severe damage and MSHA approved the retreat mining plan for the southern tunnel at Crandall Canyon in June. The southern tunnel collapsed on the 6 miners August 9th.

Don’t depend on the regulators too much either. Murray-owned mines are responsible for about half of Utah’s unpaid, delinquent fines, to the tune of $75,348. You’d think that’d deserve a slight penalty. Guess not. Plans are still approved and “business” continues.

After the Sago disaster, Congress passed the Miner Act of 2006, requiring the introduction of new technology to locate miners. But loopholes abound, including a provision allowing mines 3 years after the law’s passage to install two-way communication devices. 3 years?

Mining deaths continue apace, and even jumped last year. China’s barbaric pace of development cost the lives of 4,746 miners in 2006 alone. The expansion of production and desperate search for profits is a continual and vicious struggle. As certain sectors of the economy contract (consumer goods say, or the housing market), others must take up the slack, the rate of profit ratcheted up, investor confidence restored. The mechanisms for this are the same as they’ve always been – longer hours, faster work, cut-backs on expenditures for health and safety, threats and violence against the working class.

If capitalism grinds up human lives, it also destroys nature, the very condition of any life and civilization. Here’s the ugly news that greets us in the first paragraph of a front page story in today’s NYT:

WASHINGTON, Aug 22 – The Bush Administration is set to issue a regulation on Friday that would enshrine the coal mining practice of mountaintop removal. The technique involves blasting the tops of mountains and dumping the rubble into valleys and streams.

The terms regulating the minimal debris and harm to the environment required are – surprise, surprise! – “not clearly defined”. No doubt those with an interest in destroying mountain ranges and their habitats for profit (and those in these latter’s pay) were waiting for something like Crandall Canyon to legitimate this barbarism.

In honor of the 6 miners taken by Murray Energy in Crandall Canyon, and of the millions of miners throughout history who’ve perished in the mountains with them…

“Oh when I am dead and the ages shall roll
My body will blacken and turn into coal
Then I’ll look from the door of my heavenly home
And pity the miner a-digging my bones” Dark as a Dungeon, Merle Travis