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Erin Ann Thomas

Sam Quigley: A Miner’s Miner

The Weekly Snippet: Selection from Coal in Our Veins

There are better and worse ways to run a coal mine. Several months after the Crandall Canyon accident, I traveled to central Utah to meet with the former Vice President of Operations at Andalex. Sam Quigley had quit when Robert Murray signed the deal to take over the company. The contract went through at eleven o’clock in the morning, and Sam’s office was cleaned out by noon. He was familiar with Murray’s reputation and refused to work with him. Soon after, my dad recruited him to be his energy man at the College of Eastern Utah.

I asked Sam what he thought about the cave-in. “We know how to mine. We should be beyond that.” At the time, he was reluctant to say anything about the case, as there was a possibility that he would have to testify in the national trials.

I visited Sam in the CEU energy center, located in the building that once served as a bath house for the Willow Creek Mine. The Castle Gate cemetery lies below, a reminder of the devastation possible in a mine. Throughout the center are signs typical of mining buildings: “Safety is a virtue,” “Center for Behavior Based Safety,” and “All Mining is Retreat Mining.” The latter is Sam’s personal motto, one that indicates the precautions a miner should take in any mining operation. There is always a chance the roof could come down.

A veteran miner, Sam is lean, wiry, and freckled. When I first met him, he caught me off guard with his fervor. After finishing a degree in geology at the University of Utah, Sam pursued the four-generation family business (metal mining) by working off his school loans digging a shaft for a trona mine in Green River, Wyoming. He wintered there in a school bus because there was a shortage of housing. Sam is not your typical miner, but he is miner’s miner, emphatic in his defense of the trade.

Sam collects mining lamps and books. He drew diagrams to show me how the lamps worked and fired mining facts at me faster than I could scribble them down. In a way, he is a curiosity to me. A miner by choice, he worked during the years my family was absent and saw the transfer from the old way of mining a longwall to the new. In the early seventies, he worked in a coal mine in central Utah, putting up timbers (to hold up the roof) “with old time miners, the Palacio brothers, Pete, Manuel, and Johnny the Smoke.” In those days, there were fourteen to fifteen mining companies in Carbon County, employing 4,000–5,000 miners who extracted eight million tons of coal. By 1990, there were only 1,700 left, but they mined around twenty-seven million tons.

Sam’s response to the Crandall Canyon accident was more a commentary on how the public reacts to such incidents: “There’s a whole group of people in society that believe that coal mining is an outdated activity and we don’t need it anymore when nasty things happen. Your toothpaste has three mining products in it. Everything that you touch—this pen, which has plastic and metal—comes from mining.”

Sam’s sister was a teacher who was part of “that” society. When his boys went into mining, she tried to talk them out of it, telling them that “Mining is no longer a necessary evil.”

But Sam believed she had lost the historic vision, which he was adamant to share with me: “There was a time when the environment was a word that wasn’t included in people’s vocabulary. They were concerned about providing the basics. Miners are heroes. They lived in wood shacks at 10,000 feet during winters and provided the basis for everything that we have. Our society has lost sight of this. We are a blessed generation. We have the ability to protect our air and water. We can reclaim landscape. You know what gives us this ability? We have an affluent society. Affluence has given Americans the opportunity to think about the environment.”

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