Report Dissects 2007 Utah Mine Disaster

Utah's Crandall Canyon mine — site of a deadly August 2007 collapse — was "destined to fail," federal investigators say. The Mine Health and Safety Administration says major engineering deficiencies led to the disaster — and that regulators were not told the mine was unstable.

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Here's a follow-up on the mine disaster that killed nine people last summer. The owners of that Utah mine have been fined more than $1.6 million for safety violations. It's the largest fine ever against a coal company.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, issued a scathing report against Murray Energy. The report says that company displayed a high level of negligence and acted with reckless disregard. NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY: All along, Murray Energy insisted the tragedy at the Crandall Canyon Mine was caused by an earthquake, not mining activity. Seismologists doubted that. MSHA head Richard Stickler settled the issue.

Mr. RICHARD STICKLER (Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health): It was not, and I'll repeat not, it was not a natural-occurring earthquake.

BRADY: Six miners died in the initial collapse. Ten days later, three rescuers were killed in a subsequent one. The report essentially says the company removed too much coal from the wrong places, causing the mine to collapse.

In deep, underground coal mines like those often found in the West, not all the coal can be removed. Some has to be left to support all that rock above. Richard Gates is MSHA's lead investigator for the Crandall Canyon incidents.

Mr. RICHARD GATES (Lead Investigator, MSHA): It's a pretty basic concept, that you need to have something, a coal pillar or a barrier pillar left in a place of sufficient size and strength to support the overburden above it.

BRADY: At Crandall Canyon, that overburden was about 2,000 feet of rock. MSHA says Murray Energy had three warnings that something was wrong, twice in March and once just three days before the collapse. The mine experienced seismic events that caused coal to burst out from the walls. These were mini-versions of the huge collapse that occurred August 6th.

Murray's engineering firm, Agapito Associates, also was fined $220,000 for telling Murray its mining plan was safe when it wasn't MSHA itself was criticized in a second report released Thursday by the Department of Labor. It said MSHA failed to properly oversee the company's mining plan and that it bungled the rescue operation.

MSHA officials met with the victims' families for more than five hours prior to releasing their report. The families didn't want to talk with reporters, but one of their attorneys, Alan Mortenson, said they expressed little emotion during the presentation.

Mr. ALAN MORTENSON (Attorney): There was a moment of silence at the beginning, and that was the most emotional time was the moment of silence, as all of the lost ones were remembered.

BRADY: In a written statement, Murray Energy called the MSHA report incomplete because it doesn't have input from the company's own mine experts. That's because they've exercised their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. Here's Murray attorney, Kevin Anderson, reading from the company's statement.

Mr. KEVIN ANDERSON (Attorney, Murray Energy): (Reading) Regrettably, this report does not have the benefit of all of the facts and appears to have been tainted, in part, by 10 months of relentless political clamoring to lay blame for these tragic events.

BRADY: Anderson was referring to investigations launched by members of Congress. While his clients now must pay more than $1.6 million in fines, they also face another, perhaps more serious, judgment. MSHA will give its report to a U.S. attorney who will decide whether to press criminal charges against those responsible for the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Price, Utah.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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