By Brian Maffly
October 2, 2022 - Utah’s busiest coal mine remained out of production Friday, 10 days after a fire broke out underground, prompting an emergency response by federal authorities.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), meanwhile, remained mum on what’s happening at the Lila Canyon coal mine, declining to release any information on the nature of the mishap, how it was triggered, what is being done to contain the damage or whether public safety and the environment are at risk.
The mine’s operator, Emery County Coal Resources, Inc., received emergency permission from state regulators this week to drill three boreholes into the mine to take air samples, but it remained unclear whether those holes were successfully drilled.
The Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, or DOGM, reported on Sept. 22 that the mine had caught fire two days earlier. All the employees were evacuated safely with no injuries and the MSHA set up a command post at the mine, located in Emery County’s wing of the Book Cliffs, according to DOGM spokeswoman Hollie Brown.
While DOGM holds jurisdiction over most aspects of coal mining, accidents fall under MSHA’s purview, so Brown has not been able to release any additional information and she referred queries to her federal counterparts.
Contacted repeatedly in the days since the fire broke out, however, MSHA has refused to provide any meaningful information. The agency’s most recent statement failed to even confirm whether a fire was involved, despite the obvious dark smoke plume that rose last week from the mine’s opening.
“MSHA continues to work with the company and the state to address the issue,” said an email in its entirety, sent from a spokesperson with the Department of Labor, MSHA’s parent agency.
The mining operator is a subsidiary of Ohio-based American Consolidated Natural Resources, Inc., the reorganized company that emerged from the bankrupt Murray Energy, owned by the late coal magnate Bob Murray.
That company has not responded to numerous emails from the news media.
Also contacted this week was the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees most of the land and minerals associated with Lila Canyon’s coal leases. As of Friday, the BLM had not released any information about the mine fire.
Although Utah authorities couldn’t provide information, DOGM did release the emergency order issued Tuesday by division director John Baza to allow the company to drill into the mine to assess its air quality. Boreholes drilled into coal mines fall under DOGM’s jurisdiction, according to that order.
“As a result,” Baza wrote, “once the conditions at the mine site have stabilized, the Division will take on the role of lead agency to ensure the permitting, bonding and ultimate reclamation of the disturbance associated with the boreholes.”
The company planned to begin drilling on Wednesday, the order said.
According to Emery County Commission Chairman Lynn Sitterud, the mine remained out of production Friday while efforts remain underway to fully extinguish fire and ensure the mine’s safety.
“We hold Lila Canyon as a reputable high-quality company and mine. It’s very important to our county,” he said. “It’s the No. 1 coal producer in the county. A lot of our mineral production revenue comes from that mine. We want that mine back in production as quickly as possible.”
He emphasized that no one from the mine’s 200-member workforce had been laid off, but he was not able to say how long before the mine would resume operations or how significant the damage is.