The most important thing the U.S. Department of Labor could do in assessing fines against operators of the Crandall Canyon Mine in connection with the disaster that killed nine people in 2007 was to send a message that negligence won't be tolerated. It remains to be seen whether the settlement announced this week, amounting to fines totaling $1.1 million, will have that effect, or whether it will simply be absorbed as a cost of doing business.
Combined with the misdemeanor criminal charges the Justice Department filed in March against the company that operated the mine, and the five years of bad publicity following the collapse, the message may well have been sent. Time will tell.
It is disturbing, however, to note that mine operators still deny any of the violations they have acknowledged led to the deadly collapse. They apparently still hold to the story that it was a 3.9 earthquake that caused the failure, something the government disputes, noting the company ignored early signs of possible failure.
After the collapse occurred, the head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration at the time, Richard Stickler, met with the Deseret News editorial board and painted a troubling picture of the industry's culture. He told of inspectors being threatened or feeling intimidated by mine operators and miners as they walked through operations taking notes. The attitude was that citing violation would result in the loss of jobs, and miners were willing to put up with some safety concerns in exchange for employment.
Has that culture changed?
Stickler's MSHA wasn't squeaky clean either. Its Denver office approved the mining methods that led to the collapse. Have federal overseers learned to be more careful in examining plans and operations?
Those two questions remain key to putting the public's mind at ease.
In announcing the settlement this week, the Labor Department said two subsidiaries of Murray Energy Corp. — Genwal Resources Inc. and Andalex Resources Inc. — "have acknowledged responsibility for the failures that led to the tragedy at Crandall Canyon." Those operators agreed that three of the safety standards they violated were "flagrant," meaning they were of the most serious type that could be assessed. Those were directly related to the criminal charges filed in March, to which Genwal Resources pleaded guilty.
Five years have passed — a length of time that might lead some in the public to forget the panicked feelings and urgency of trying to reach trapped miners, or the feeling of helpless sorrow for the rescuers who themselves were killed 10 days later. Nothing can bring back those lives.
And yet, mining remains an essential economic activity that makes modern living standards possible. Lost amid the tragedy is the fact that mining has become demonstrably safer in recent decades. That's a scant comfort to those who lost loved ones in Crandall Canyon. The disaster will have served a greater purpose only if it stands as a lesson to all who operate mines that negligence will cost much more than it gains.