Federal Land Agency Noted Serious Problems at Utah Mine 3 Years Before Collapse, Senate Panel Told

Bureau of Land Management inspectors noted serious structural problems at Utah's Crandall Canyon Mine at least three years before two roof collapses killed nine people in August, Congress was told Tuesday.

Yet the government's mine safety agency in another agency — the Labor Department — didn't know of the concerns about Crandall Canyon until after the accident, Kevin Stricklin, a coal mine safety and health administrator for Labor, told a Senate hearing on the accident.

The Labor Department had approved a plan to mine there.

"This is like the CIA not getting information from the FBI when we're getting attacked by terrorists," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., whose committee also is investigating the oversight by the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration of the mine and the accident response.

Six miners trapped during a cave-in at the mine on Aug. 6 are presumed dead, entombed 1,500 feet below ground. Three rescuers were killed in a second collapse on Aug. 16 while trying to tunnel to the men.

Documents released by Kennedy's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee showed that in November 2004 a BLM inspector noted that pillars of coal, which were holding up the mine's roof, were failing. The inspector, Stephen Falk, said that further mining by pulling out the pillars would be "untenable."

That the mine operators "had thoughts and plans to try pillar recovery was wishful thinking and was more wanting to extend mine life," Falk wrote.

Under questioning, Stricklin said the report would have been helpful and could have shaped the agency's decision to allow mining at Crandall Canyon. The BLM report was done for internal use only, Kennedy's spokeswoman said. BLM is a part of the Interior Department.

Lawmakers have said they are skeptical that MSHA did everything it could to prevent the accident.

Both cave-ins are believed to have been caused by a "bump," or spontaneous explosion from the mine roof or wall, caused by pressure from the heavy mountain above. Bumps are common in Utah's deep mines.

Experts have said the Crandall Canyon mine was particularly prone to bumps because the operators were mining the last of the coal there, and that weakened supports and put extreme pressure on the roof.