SALT LAKE CITY — The widow of a Crandall Canyon Mine rescuer killed in a 2007 collapse reacted angrily Friday to news that the mine operator was charged criminally on Friday, but not directly for actions that led to the deaths of the nine men.
"It doesn't surprise me at all," said Wendy Black of Huntington. "The whole system has failed these men."
Black's husband, Dale, was one of three men killed Aug. 16, 2007, while trying to rescue six miners trapped in a collapse of the mine 10 days earlier.
On Friday, the operator of the Crandall Canyon Mine — Genwall Resources — was charged in federal court with two misdemeanors for willful violations of federal mining laws and will pay a fine of $500,000.
The announcement brings to a near conclusion the criminal case arising from an exhaustive investigation into the tragedy more than three and a half years after it was first referred to federal prosecutors in Utah.
U.S. Attorney for Utah David Barlow said Genwal Resources, operator of the Crandall Canyon Mine, will plead guilty to the twin offenses and be sentenced March 14, pending a judge's review of the arrangement.
Barlow said the charges are "serious" and should put mining companies on notice.
"We recognize that nothing we can do will ever bring back the miners who perished, restore the health of those who were injured during the rescue, or erase the nightmares that still haunt those who were firsthand witnesses to these tragedies," Barlow said in a statement. "It is this office's intent that these charges send the message to mining companies everywhere: obey the safety laws."
The Crandall Canyon Mine near Huntington collapsed Aug. 6, 2007, entombing six miners: Kerry Allred, Don Erickson, Luis Hernandez, Carlos Payan, Brandon Phillips and Arturo "Manuel" Sanchez.
The collapse of the mine's walls 1,800 feet underground happened with such force it registered as a 4.2-magnitude seismic event.
Fears of the mine's stability stymied early rescue attempts and were later born out in the second collapse that killed three would-be rescuers 10 days later. In addition to the fatalities of Black, Gary Jensen and Brandon Kimber, six other rescuers suffered serious injuries.
Prosecutors on Friday did stress that the charges filed do not directly relate to the fatal mine collapses but instead stem from earlier activities at the mine.
Barlow said there was "insufficient criminal evidence" that the actions taken by individuals or the mining company itself directly led to the deaths of the miners or their rescuers.
While he conceded that conclusion may be a source of frustration for families, Barlow said his office is obligated to pursue cases where the evidence at hand can bring a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.
"This was a terrible, terrible tragedy," he said, adding it was his office's hope that this resolution in the case will represent "another step in the healing process."
Black said if federal regulators who shirked their duty in the oversight of the mine couldn't be held accountable, it isn't any wonder to her that top Genwall officials aren't going to face any criminal violations.
"Who holds anyone accountable for any of these mistakes? No one."
Attorney Alan Mortensen spoke on behalf of the families after the announcement and said he believed prosecutors did an excellent job, even in the shadow of disappointment that no one individual will be held criminally responsible.
"I believe there will be mixed reactions," he said, adding that charges speak to a willful disregard of laws meant to protect the health and safety of mine workers.
The first violation stems from the company's failure to promptly report a "bounce" that disrupted regular mining activity for more than an hour on March 10, 2007, several months before the fatal collapses.
Genwal said it reported the bounce to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration the next business day and abandoned that area of the mine. But the law required them to report the incident within 15 minutes.
The second misdemeanor was for an Aug. 3, 2007, violation of a roof control plan approved by federal regulators that strictly prohibited mining in a certain area. That illegal mining activity was in a different area of the mine from the fatal collapse.
In a prepared statement released by Genwal, the company stressed that the violations are in no way connected to fatal mining accidents.
"Significantly, the agreement reflects the lack of evidence that any conduct by the company caused the accidents of Aug. 6 or 16, 2007," Genwal reiterated in its statement.
"Resolution of this investigation avoids Genwal putting its former employees, their families, and members of the community at large through the ordeal of reliving the tragic events."
Mortensen slammed Genwal for its statement and said it reflects a "continuing pattern of failing to be responsible for their actions."
He said the criminal charges brought Friday belie the company's statement, which he characterized as "very arrogant and very unapologetic."
Friday's actions come three and a half years after federal mine safety officials asked the U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah to launch a criminal investigation into the mine's operation.
At the time, Richard E. Stickler, acting assistant secretary of labor for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the operator and its engineering consultants demonstrated "reckless disregard for safety."
The twin cave-ins prompted an extensive investigation by federal mine safety officials, who said the mine was "destined to fail" because the company made critical miscalculations and didn't report early warning signs. Murray Energy, the parent company, was fined $1.34 million.
Civil lawsuits brought by relatives of the victims against four companies linked to the mine operation, affiliates, insurance companies and mining consultants were settled in 2009. Although specific terms of the settlement were undisclosed, attorneys for the families said the amount was in excess of $20 million — the amount paid in the 1984 Wilberg mine explosion.