HUNTINGTON, Utah – Federal mining officials asked prosecutors Wednesday to decide whether criminal charges are warranted in the deaths of nine people in last year's collapse of the Crandall Canyon mine in the Western state of Utah.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration has been investigating two cave-ins in August 2007 at Crandall Canyon that killed six miners and three rescuers. The federal agency already has fined Genwal Resources Inc., a subsidiary of Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp., $1.34 million for alleged violations that directly contributed to the deaths of six miners. Agapito Associates Inc., a Grand Junction, Colorado, mining engineering consultancy, was fined $220,000 for an allegedly faulty analysis of the mine's design. They were the largest fines ever imposed on a U.S. coal mining operation.
Six miners were trapped on Aug. 6 in a cave-in and remain entombed more than 1,500 feet below ground. Three rescuers, including a government mine safety inspector, were killed in a second collapse on Aug. 16 while trying to tunnel to the men.
"Through its investigation of the tragic accidents last year at Crandall Canyon, MSHA determined that the operator and its engineering consultants demonstrated reckless disregard for safety," said Richard E. Stickler, acting assistant secretary of labor for MSHA. "MSHA has referred this case for possible criminal charges."
In a statement, Genwal attorney Kevin Anderson said the development was no surprise, given the "profound bias and factual leaps in MSHA's" report on the mine's collapse. He called Sticker's remarks reckless and without factual basis.
"The facts demonstrate that Genwal Resources Inc. endeavored in good faith to follow safe mining practices and truly believed the mine was safe," Anderson said. "We look forward to the opportunity to present the facts of this matter to the U.S. attorney's office, confident that Genwal Resources will be exonerated in any fair review of this tragedy."
The U.S. attorney in Utah has requested that the U.S. Labor Department, which oversees MSHA, halt its civil proceedings dealing with Crandall Canyon until its investigation is completed, officials said. A judge with the federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, which handles all MSHA citations, fines and cases, has yet to rule on the request.
MSHA has said the mine was "destined to fail" because the mining company made critical miscalculations and did not report early warning signs. MSHA itself was faulted by its parent agency, both for lax oversight before the collapse and for its handling of the fatal rescue effort.
Murray Energy chief Bob Murray has insisted that the type of mining taking place at Crandall Canyon had nothing to do with the collapse. He argued from the start that it was caused by an earthquake.
Democratic Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee, also made a criminal referral in May to the Justice Department on the Crandall Canyon disaster.
Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for Utah's U.S. attorney, Brett Tolman, said late Wednesday that information from both Miller's committee and MSHA's report on the twin collapses will factor into decisions about possible criminal prosecution.
UtahAmerican Energy Inc., a subsidiary of Murray Energy, owns the mine.