WASHINGTON A harsh Senate report on the Crandall Canyon Mine accident issued Thursday blames Murray Energy and the Mine Safety and Health Administration for last year's disaster that killed nine people.
For the families of those lost in the accident, the report confirms a lot of what they already knew or suspected, according to their attorney.
But Murray Energy and others, including Utah's senators, were quick to point out it is not the final word on the accident.
"This is a comprehensive and very strongly worded report," said Edward Havas, an attorney with the Salt Lake law firm Dewsnup, King & Olsen that represents most of the families of those killed or injured in the accident. "It doesn't pull any punches. It should be a wake-up call for others in the industry that dangerous practices are still going on and should not be tolerated."
The report, issued by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, known as HELP, is the first report from Congress with at least one other in the works and the MSHA official investigation still under way.
Shortly after the accident, Kennedy requested e-mails, any documents on mine plan changes and MSHA consideration of them, inspection reports, meeting minutes, e-mails, handwritten notes and other communication between the mine owners and MSHA officials, and a variety of others from the Labor Department many of which are quoted in the report released Thursday.
Havas said the report serves as a "good road map" as the firm prepares the families' litigation on the accident.
The HELP committee had a hearing in October and families of the miners and rescuers, along with Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr., testified before the House Education and Labor Committee a day later.
House and Senate committees have subpoenaed Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray, but it is not clear when he will come to Washington to talk about the accident. The House Education and Labor Committee is still working on its investigation.
Kennedy said the 75-page report's finding warrants a criminal investigation by the Justice Department.
"The committee's investigation has revealed that the owner of Crandall Canyon Mine, Murray Energy, disregarded dangerous conditions at the mine, failed to tell federal regulators about these dangers, conducted unauthorized mining and as a result exposed its miners to serious risks," Kennedy said.
"MSHA also unconscionably failed to protect miners by hastily rubber-stamping the plan. This is a clear case of callous disregard for the law and for safety standards, and hard-working miners lost their lives."
Despite rescue efforts, the bodies of six miners remain entombed in the mine since an August 2007 collapse in Emery County. Days after the accident, three rescuers died while trying to dig out the men.
According to a summary from Kennedy's office of the report, which is extremely technical in nature, the committee found that Murray Energy and its technical consultant, Agapito Associates, ignored the history of the mine's instability and did not make the right engineering assumption for the mine, while MSHA missed flaws in Agapito's analysis and did not submit plans to the agency's technical staff for review. The report says Murray Energy "ignored substantial evidence of instability during mining operation" and continued to mine for coal even in light of evidence there was danger near the north barrier, among several other conclusions.
"It is disheartening to see how much knowledge the company had prior to the accidents and that they disregarded warning signs," Havas said, referring to several "red flags" Kennedy highlights in the report. "They should have recognized there were very clear signals."
United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil E. Roberts said the report "underscores the need for the enhanced mine safety and health protections."
The House approved a mine-safety bill in January aimed at building on reforms approved by Congress in 2006, although there were some objections to the bill with critics saying the 2006 reforms haven't been given enough of a chance to be implemented yet. Kennedy has his reform proposal, the Miner Health and Safety Enhancement Act of 2007, that he introduced in June and aims to mark-up this year.
In light of the report, Roberts urged the committee to move forward on the bill.
"American coal miners are still dying just because they went to work. We need the enhanced protections the S-MINER Act provides. The terrible events at Crandall Canyon must never be forgotten and never be repeated."
MSHA reminded Kennedy that the official investigation into the accident is still taking place.
"MSHA's Accident Investigation Team is preparing the official investigative report that will determine the root causes of this accident as well as the appropriate enforcement actions, including any criminal referrals," MSHA spokesman Matthew Faraci said via e-mail. "Until the MSHA Accident Report and the DOL Internal Review are concluded, speculation by Senator Kennedy's staff is inappropriate."
Michael O. McKown, general counsel of UtahAmerican Energy, Inc., a subsidy of Murray Energy that operates the mine, said the report "is politically motivated, irresponsible and unjustifiable."
"Mr. Murray and the company would never knowingly expose any employee to danger and he hasn't in his 50 years of experience," McKown said. "For anyone to imply otherwise is blatantly false. Once the facts are known, they will show that Mr. Murray deserves tremendous credit for his courage and leadership under very difficult conditions."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who sits on the HELP Committee with Kennedy, along with the committee's top Republican Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said Congress should "refrain from rushing to judgments based on incomplete and unofficial evidence."
"(Kennedy's) report is one of a number of inquiries that will shed light on the Crandall Canyon Mine tragedy," Hatch said. "I will weigh the opinions in his inquiry with the official findings in the Inspector General's and Mine Safety and Health Administration's official reports that are due to be released later this year. I'll further examine the findings in all the other ongoing reports on Crandall Canyon."Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, also said he would consider Kennedy's report but "will withhold any final conclusion until I have reviewed the official report from the Mine Safety and Health Administration."