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Calls For Congressional Investigations As Criticism Of Federal Oversight Mounts

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Cecil E. Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers union, urged congressional leaders Tuesday to appoint an independent commission of experts to investigate the Utah mine collapse, saying federal regulators should not be tasked with investigating themselves.

The call for an independent probe came on the same day that the governor of Utah asked federal mine officials to immediately inspect two other mines owned by Murray Energy Corp.

"This is the least we can do to ensure that the lives lost have not been in vain," said Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Republican. He said a state commission would be set up to investigate what measures Utah could take to avoid future tragedies.

The developments came as safety experts and the families of the trapped miners have become increasingly vocal in their criticism of the government's handling of the rescue operations.

Roberts, the union chief, said the Mine Safety and Health Administration failed to learn from investigations of previous mine accidents, and described a culture of "not rocking the boat" that had developed at the agency.

"Time and again MSHA's performance has been found to have had a role in sanctioning the very conduct that developed into subsequent disasters," Roberts said in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) "I do not believe the American public and our nation's coal miners will be well-served by another instance of MSHA investigating itself in this disaster."

Roberts pointed to internal MSHA reviews conducted after three mine accidents in 2006 in West Virginia and Kentucky that said lax oversight and failure to adhere to safety regulations helped contribute to those disasters.

"The status quo simply isn't working to protect miners," Roberts said.

The UMWA does not represent workers at Crandall Canyon, which is a non-union mine.

U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) - who chair the House committee and subcommittee overseeing workplace safety - have already announced they will convene hearings on the Crandall Canyon tragedy.

The union's call for an independent investigation came a day after the mine's owner acknowledged the six workers who have been trapped underground since Aug. 6 would probably be entombed in the mine.

"I don't know whether the miners will be found, but I'm not optimistic they will be found alive," said Robert E. Murray, president and CEO of Murray Energy Corp., and co-owner of the mine, at a Monday news conference.

Murray, who has kept a low profile since three rescue workers were killed last week in a second collapse, appeared in public again on Tuesday at the funeral for Dale Black, 48, a veteran miner working on the rescue team.

Many are now beginning to question the prominent public role that Murray played in the eleven days between the first and second collapses at the mine. Critics charge that federal officials ceded their control of the rescue operation to Murray.

New mine safety laws enacted after last year's Sago disaster in West Virginia state that "the Mine Safety and Health Administration shall serve as the primary communicator with the operator, miners' families, the press and the public."

Before last Thursday's fatalities, Murray was a near-ubiquitous figure on cable television, leading reporters on an underground tour of the mine and donning a hardhat and coveralls to address the assembled media.

MSHA chief Richard Stickler kept a lower profile at press conferences, coming to the forefront in recent days only after Murray receded from public view.

Ellen Smith, the editor of Mine Safety and Health News, an industry newsletter, said she was stunned to see Murray leading cameras into the mine during the rescue operation:

"As someone who has covered the health and safety side of this industry for 18 years, and gone to both surface and underground mines, I could not believe what I was seeing," Smith wrote in an Aug. 10 editorial. "What was MSHA thinking to allow non-rescue personnel into this mine?"

Blake Hanna, a retired federal mine inspector from Price, near Crandall Canyon, said MSHA would have had to give the okay for anything Murray did at the disaster site.

"When an event happens at the mine, the first inspector up there writes a control order, " Hanna said. "After that, anything the operator wants to do, the district manager at MSHA has the power to grant or deny it."

Spokesmen for both the Department of Labor and MSHA did not return calls seeking comment.

Any future investigations will have to look at whether the Crandall Canyon collapse was the result of risky retreat mining plans approved by MSHA and whether MSHA has grown too close to the industry it is supposed to regulate, as some critics allege.

"No one took the time to see that it was a recipe for disaster," Phil Smith, a spokesman for the union, told the Associated Press on Tuesday.

Ellen Smith told the Huffington Post that while there are dedicated employees at MSHA, "It's a broken agency."

"Somehow professionalism went down the tube," she said.

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