Frustrated lawmakers lashed out at the nation's mine safety chief Wednesday over his handling of last month's deadly collapse at a Utah coal mine, saying the agency had yet to learn from four major disasters in the nation's coal mines over the past two years.
Senators grew increasingly exasperated with Mine Safety and Health Administration chief Richard Stickler as he struggled to provide answers as to why possible warning signs at the Utah mine were ignored - including a previous seismic bump 900 feet from the collapse site. Lawmakers also wanted to know why the rescue operation suffered so many setbacks, despite a recent major overhaul of the nation's mine safety laws.
"What the hell does it take to shake up this agency?" asked Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., to the applause of union members in the audience. "What is the problem at MSHA? What the hell is the problem at MSHA?"
Wednesday's hearing marked the first of several hearings on the Utah mine tragedy expected on Capitol Hill in the coming weeks. Lawmakers in the Senate and the House have launched simultaneous probes into the initial cave-in at Crandall Canyon on Aug. 6.
Looming over the event was the conspicuous absence of Crandall Canyon's owner, Bob Murray, who claimed to be both busy and then sick. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn, indicated that the Senate would subpoena the embattled head of Murray Energy Corporation to compel testimony as to why he exposed workers to seemingly dangerous conditions both in the run-up to the mine collapse, and during the subsequent recovery efforts.
"I'm a little surprised that Mr. Murray's not here," said Specter. "We discussed the issue and we will issue a subpoena... We will be pursuing this matter with real intensity to find answers."
Six coal miners were trapped underground when the section of Crandall Canyon they had been mining collapsed on top of them. Three rescue workers were killed in a subsequent cave-in during underground efforts to reach the trapped coal miners.
Even with Murray's absence, committee members had ample questions and criticisms to lob Stickler's way. Sitting alone at a five-person table and with angry members of the United Mine Workers of America union behind him, Stickler was grilled on nearly every aspect of what took place at Crandall Canyon, from the "mountain bumps" that occurred months before the mine's collapse, to the lack of wireless communication that marred the rescue efforts.
Stickler's responses were at times defensive and accusatory. He claimed that "seismic activity," such as that which occurred near Crandall in March, "cannot be used to predict an impending bump." Stickler said there was no "recipe" or "cookbook" for mine rescue operations.
When asked by Specter why MSHA ceded control of the dissemination of pubic information regarding the rescue to the mine owner, Stickler cast the press as villain.
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"Even though I led off the press conference, the news media did not broadcast that," he said. "They waited for a mine official to speak and that's what hey showed the American public. If we can figure out a way to control the news media... I don't know what that is yet."
In a statement e-mailed to The Huffington Post, Murray said that he thought Stickler "reported the events well" at Wednesday's hearing.
Stickler's performance did not win him support among members of the United Mine Workers of America union. Many nodded in approval when Specter suggested that there might have been criminal negligence involved with MSHA handling of the situation.
Outside the hearing, some union officials had harsh words for the mine safety chief, who was installed as head of MSHA by recess appointment in 2006 after it became clear the GOP-controlled Senate would not give him their support.
"There are a lot of questions he's ignoring," said Rich Eddy, UMWA's international district vice president of West Virginia and Ohio. "The most obvious is why did Bob Murray take control of the operation."
Union dissatisfaction with Stickler had been stoked prior to Wednesday's hearing. Last week, MSHA denied a request by the families of the six trapped miners that the United Mine Workers represent them in the probe of the collapse.
Dissatisfied with Stickler's answers and angry with Murray for missing the proceedings, both the Senate and union members were left to wonder whether the collapse at Crandall Canyon could have been averted.
"This disaster was not an act of God, but an act of man," said Cecil Roberts, president of UNWA. "It was preventable."
Senators appeared alarmed that the mining companies still had not fully responded to a series of deadly collapses that have plagued the industry since the Sago tragedy in January 2006 when 12 miners died.
"Why do we continue to have these hearings... 18 months since the hearings after the Sago disaster in West Virginia?" asked Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.
Sam Stein is a Staff Writer at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org