By Nathan Barton
On Saturday the 10th, tragedy struck Moab, Utah.
At the Intrepid Potash Mine (seen above, from Google Maps), down the Colorado River from the popular tourist town, three men were removing a pump. The equipment touched a sagging overhead live powerline. Instantly, two men died, electrocuted. The third jumped out of the equipment he was operating, to try to assist them. His legs and an arm were blown off by the electrical current jumping through his body. He died in a Salt Lake City Hospital two days later. (If he had stayed in the vehicle, he would have lived.)
A Moab policeman was the initial First Responder to get to the scene: a friend of one of the dead. The follow-up (Sheriff’s officers and local Fire District and Emergency Medical Service personnel) included many who had worked at the mine, and who knew the dead and injured. This is small community, filled with friends and relatives of the dead.
I heard about the tragic accident by word of mouth. There is no television station locally. The radio stations – especially on weekends – generally just retransmit programing from Grand Junction (Colorado – 120 miles), Cortez (Colorado – 120 miles), or the Wasatch Front (Salt Lake City and the I-15 corridor – 250 miles). The local newspapers are weekly. Though their websites are updated often, it was a weekend. Worse, the three-day weekend for Veterans Day.
Because I do a lot of training on safety for mining, I was bothered and disturbed that such a horrible incident did not show up on-line. Not in government websites and emails (MSHA, the FedGov’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, publishes “Fatalgrams” and “Serious Injury Alerts” 24-7). Nor in the commercial industrial media. There was no word spread. Other than a few seconds mention on regional news programs.
This is a critical time of year, and there were clearly deadly mistakes were made. It is important to know why – so others can learn from the tragedy and prevent more like it. But we are unlikely to ever learn exactly what happened, thanks to government.
After seeing nothing on either the public or private safety websites, I started calling, including the MSHA office for the State of Utah. I asked the supervisor why no Fatalgram was issued, why no information was provided to remind people – miners – about overhead powerlines and electrocution dangers and how to PREVENT injuries and deaths. After all, that is why MSHA was created, back in 1977: too many deaths, injuries and illnesses of miners, that could have been prevented.
I found that the “Intrepid Potash Mine” is really NOT a mine. It is NOT under MSHA jurisdiction. An agreement between MSHA and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) gives OSHA jurisdiction.
Why? It is how they do mining at Intrepid. They pump water down into the ground. The water dissolves the potash and is pumped back up into ponds (the bright blue areas you can see in the satellite photo). The sun evaporates the water, and the dry, crystalline potash is loaded up, further purified, and shipped out. Not much different from digging up sand and gravel from a pit. But no one has to go underground. Only the water does. It is called solution mining. But it isn’t legally a “mine.”
It is good that no one goes underground – one of the many events leading up to the establishment of MSHA took place at this very mine in August 1963. Then the potash was actually mined in underground workings. An explosion trapped and killed eighteen men: an incredible tragedy for a much smaller Moab community just over 65 years ago.
Poor planning, poor work practices, and lack of training and knowledge killed those 18 people, and killed these 3 people.
While both MSHA and OSHA are government agencies (both in the same US Department of Labor), there is a great difference between the two. Although I have many frustrations with MSHA, MSHA is dedicated to preventing deaths, injuries, and illnesses, and works hard to make sure that miners understand their rights, responsibilities, and how to work safely. They carefully investigate every death and publish the information on what happened, why it happened, and how to prevent it – and spread that information widely. It DOES save lives.
OSHA, on the other hand, has a totally different emphasis: enforcement, penalties, and fines – paperwork is their god. I’m not saying that MSHA does NOT have enforcement power, levy and collect penalties and fines. They do, and MSHA inspectors are very powerful – more powerful than OSHA inspectors. But visit the websites of the two agencies (www.msha.gov and www.osha.gov) and see the difference.
So far this year (counting a death at a Nevada gold mine on Sunday 11 NOV), there have been 16 mine fatalities under MSHA jurisdiction in 2018. We can expect at least 3-4 more (fatalities and injuries go up in winter conditions) before the end of the year. It would not be unreasonable (although I’ve not found any data) to find that more than 10 times that number has died under OSHA jurisdiction this year.
An example is the solid waste management industry (collection, landfills, etc.). In 2017, 132 people died in that business. 38 were workers on the job, 94 were members of the public. You’ll have a hard time finding that info on the OSHA website or their publications, or why they died and what can be done to prevent further deaths.
Why? Politics and horsetrading in government. Congress passed two different laws, and the bureaucrats did all the rest. There are no doubt many reasons mining is done one way and other occupations another. But those reasons are political, not logical. There are many other industries more dangerous than mining.
But government does all things badly, and occupational safety is one of those things. (As is mining safety, just NOT as bad.) Government is good at taking lives, not saving them. Poor political choices (are there any other?) result in poor performance.
Enough said. For now.