Quinney College Professor, Former U.S. Attorney Scott Matheson Jr. to Lead Mine Disaster Investigation

By Glen Warchol
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. created a Utah Mine Safety Commission on Thursday, headed by former U.S. Attorney Scott Matheson Jr., to conduct its own investigation of the Crandall Canyon mine tragedy.

The announcement came a few hours after Huntsman publicly chastised the mine’s co-owner, Robert Murray, for “unconscionable” behavior toward the six trapped miners’ families.

Murray previously accused the governor, who had ordered inspections of Murray Energy’s other Utah mines, of “playing politics” with the disaster that likely killed six miners, then killed three rescue workers.

The Mine Safety Commission will report back this fall on ways the state can ensure the safety of its miners. That might include expanding the state’s role in mine safety inspections, Huntsman said. The state turned inspections and enforcement over to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration in 1977.

“We want to do everything we possibly can to ensure the state will be there when it comes to safety and support for our miners and their communities,” Matheson said.

Huntsman acknowledged the state’s probe will be one of many into the disaster.

The chairman of the U.S. Senate committee that oversees workplace safety Thursday called on the Labor Department to produce extensive documents relating to the Crandall Canyon mine.

Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations subcommittee has called in MSHA chief Richard Stickler for questioning and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who heads the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has asked Labor Secretary Elaine Chao for documents related to safety at the Utah mine.

“What makes the [state mine safety] commission’s work unique is that our task is to focus on the state’s role – what the state can do to be as effective as it possibly can in securing the safety of our miners and mining communities,” Matheson said.

Earlier Thursday at his monthly news conference on KUED-TV, Huntsman lashed out at Murray for what he called callous treatment of the mine victims’ families leading up to his announcement that the men were likely dead and would have to be entombed in the mountain.

“There ought to be some modicum of respect for their human dignity and what [victims’ families] are experiencing,” Huntsman said.

Although he avoided using Murray’s name, Huntsman made it clear his criticism was aimed at the outspoken chief executive of Murray Energy. “I’m not going to get into the mine owner other than to say I thought the way the families were treated was unconscionable and they deserved better.”

Murray has said Huntsman’s push for an independent state investigation of the tragedy was a political ploy.

“No one is playing politics with this situation,” Huntsman responded. His appointment of Matheson, his Democratic opponent in the 2004 election, shows mine safety transcends politics, he said.

Huntsman said Utah Mine Safety Commission is similar to a panel appointed by West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin after the Sago Mine disaster in 2006 that killed 12.

Huntsman called Manchin within hours of the Crandall Mine collapse.