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Two Problem Coal Mines Still Face Scrutiny

One day after the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration accused Massey Energy of sabotaging safety at its Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, there are developments in federal enforcement efforts involving two other coal mines:

Crandall Canyon Mine Disaster

In a letter obtained by NPR, the U.S. Attorney for Utah says her office will wrap up within six months its three-year-long criminal investigation of the Crandall Canyon mine disaster, in which nine miners and rescuers died.

"Since December 2010, this Office has entered what it deems as the final stages of its investigation," writes U.S. Attorney Carlie Christensen in a June 20 letter to the Labor Department and Judge Richard Manning at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission

Federal prosecutors began to investigate the companies that managed and provided consulting services at the Utah mine after both the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the House Labor Committee turned up evidence of possible criminal activity.

Judge Manning presides over a number of civil cases involving Crandall Canyon owner Murray Energy and Agapito Associates, a mining engineering firm. The cases involve citations and fines that resulted from MSHA's investigation of two deadly mine cave-ins in August, 2007. The U.S. Attorney's office has asked Manning to postpone those cases until the criminal investigation is complete.

"This Office respectfully requests that the stay remain in place one more period lasting no longer than six months," Christensen writes, which indicates the probe will end by the end of the year, either with criminal charges or a decision not to prosecute.

Christensen notes that prosecutors expanded their investigation to include contact with "other government agencies with relevant information." That's likely a reference to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which has some oversight responsibility for mines in the west.

Mine safety advocates have complained about the pace of the investigation. Former federal mine safety chief Davitt McAteer told NPR, "Justice delayed is justice denied," in a recent story about the delay.

Rare Federal Court Injunction Against Kentucky Mine

And in the coalfields of Appalachia, a federal judge has issued a rare restraining order against a coal mine accused of sabotaging a surprise federal mine safety inspection with warnings to miners underground.

NPR has obtained a copy of the order issued in Kentucky by U.S. District Court Judge Amul Thapar.

The order prohibits managers and employees at Rhino Resources' Cam #28 mine from warning each other about the presence of federal inspectors. NPR's review of federal records indicates only three other cases in more than three decades involving efforts to block advance warnings with federal court injunctions.

As NPR has reported, advance warnings thwart mine safety enforcement and are believed to be fairly common in the industry.

Inspectors arrived unannounced at CAM #28 two weeks ago in response to an anonymous complaint about smoking underground. Smoking and the use of lighters in coal mines is blamed for four mine explosions and 24 deaths since 1977.

The inspectors seized control of the mine's phone system but managers still called out warnings to miners underground that inspectors were on the way.

The restraining order makes contempt of court citations possible, with jail terms and/or fines, if the practice is repeated.

The order is temporary until a July 18 hearing on the Labor Department's request for a permanent injunction.

Criminal charges are also possible but it's not clear whether the Labor Department is also seeking criminal prosecution. The agency has not responded to NPR's requests for comment.

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