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Crandall Mine owners, MSHA condemned

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 2 2015 5:20 a.m. MDT

Richard Stickler, right, talks to Robert Jensen (son of Gary Jensen, killed in Crandall mine) after briefing the family on official findings. (Michael Brandy, Deseret News) Richard Stickler, right, talks to Robert Jensen (son of Gary Jensen, killed in Crandall mine) after briefing the family on official findings. (Michael Brandy, Deseret News)
PRICE — In a long-awaited report released Thursday, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration proposed a record fine against operators of the Crandall Canyon Mine and detailed 10 violations directly related to the August 2007 collapses that entombed six men and killed three others trying to rescue them.
But a separate report, also released Thursday, blasted MSHA itself for what it called multiple failures of the agency during the Crandall Canyon plan approval process, inspection activities and rescue attempt.
That report, prepared for Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, said MSHA "failed to fully meet its responsibility by approving the roof control plans for mining the north and south barriers" within the mine.
"MSHA's failure to adequately evaluate the roof control plans contributed to the occurrence of the Aug. 6th accident," authors of the report wrote for an independent review team within the Labor Department.
Wendy Black, widow of Dale Black, talks to the media during a break from the briefing of the Crandall Canyon mine accident. The briefing was for the family members of the deceased miners. (Michael Brandy, Deseret News) Wendy Black, widow of Dale Black, talks to the media during a break from the briefing of the Crandall Canyon mine accident. The briefing was for the family members of the deceased miners. (Michael Brandy, Deseret News)
On Aug. 6, 2007, six miners were trapped by a catastrophic collapse within the Crandall Canyon Mine in Emery County. After 10 days of digging, trying to reach the men, three more men were killed in another collapse.
Thursday's release of the reports left unanswered questions about why miners went after sections of coal that were supposed to have been left untouched. And there were anger and tears from family members who lost loved ones as they were taken back in time to nearly one year ago to the tragedies.
After a year of waiting, the results of MSHA's investigation confirmed what many victims' families and their lawyers said they already knew.
"It was a catastrophic outburst of the coal pillars that were used to support the group above the coal seam," explained Richard Stickler, acting assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health during a press briefing detailing the long-awaited report.
MSHA lead accident investigator Richard Gates, back, listens as Genwal attorney Kevin Anderson accuses MSHA of conducting a tainted and political investigation. (Michael Brandy, Deseret News) MSHA lead accident investigator Richard Gates, back, listens as Genwal attorney Kevin Anderson accuses MSHA of conducting a tainted and political investigation. (Michael Brandy, Deseret News)
A MSHA briefing for families Thursday morning corroborated for some that the Crandall Canyon mining plan was "flawed" prior to the Aug. 6 collapse. Coal was reportedly being mined from an area where the plan prohibited removing structures meant to support a mountain of rock and coal above those miners.
There were reports Thursday that critical information about geologic "bounces" in March and early August was either not reported or inadequately submitted to MSHA.
MSHA is proposing what officials called the highest fine amount for a coal-mining-related incident in history and the second highest in mining history.
MSHA is proposing to fine mine operator Genwal Resources Inc., owned by Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray, $1.6 million, while also fining mine engineering firm Agapito Associates Inc. $220,000 for its "flawed engineering analysis." In total, 21 citations or violations were issued — 10 of those (nine to Genwal and one to Agapito) relating directly to the accident. Those fines are subject to appeal.
Genwal attorney Kevin Anderson said Thursday that MSHA's report was tainted and lacked testimony of certain experts that could have shed more light on mining practices taking place prior to Aug. 6.
"But 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," Anderson said. He added how Genwal will continue its own investigation and do whatever it can to make mining safer.
Wendy Black, wife of killed rescuer Dale Black, said that what she heard in the briefing from MSHA only reinforced what she already knew about the mine plan for Crandall Canyon.
"It was flawed to begin with," Black said.
The report said the mine operator "misled" or "withheld information" from MSHA about a trio of coal bursts in March and August 2007 leaving investigators unable to get a complete picture of the overall conditions in the mine. MSHA further accuses Genwal of not revising its mining plan following the March bursts, opting rather to continue to "mine in areas with unsafe conditions."
MSHA cited three engineering analyses that said pillar stability was below recommendations, that there was a "decidedly unsafe, unstable situation in the making" and that the area of the Aug. 6 collapse was "primed for massive pillar collapse."
Said Stickler, "The mine operator failed to revise its roof control plan when conditions underground clearly indicated that the plan was not adequate."
He also said Genwal incorporated flawed design recommendations from Agapito, which failed to recommend a safe mining plan, safe barrier and pillar dimensions.
Stickler also made clear that earlier assertions made by mine co-owner Murray that the collapse was triggered by an earthquake were not accurate. "It was not — and I'll repeat — not a naturally occurring earthquake."
During the briefing for families, a lawyer representing the widow of Don Erickson, one of the six original trapped miners, asked MSHA why the mine plan was approved if MSHA knew it was flawed. "They just kind of dodged the bullet," Nelda Erickson said about the answer from MSHA officials.
Despite learning about the fines, nothing Black heard from MSHA Thursday seemed to put the blame on one person or one entity in particular, she said.
Black, however, was encouraged by MSHA looking again at the mining plans for several deep mines like Crandall Canyon in the interest of preventing future disasters. She credited Stickler with making "good points" that had to do with a new checklist that mine inspectors will have to follow during inspections.
Attorney Colin King, whose firm represents several families of the mine disaster victims, called the report "tough" and said there is a lot of new information in it that backs up claims that families are making in their lawsuit. "It underlines and emphasized the claims we made in our complaint," King said. Those families, he added, are suing for more answers and to help prevent similar incidents in the future.
Cesar Sanchez, brother of miner Manuel Sanchez, who died in the initial collapse, said everything he heard Thursday confirmed rumors that the mine operator had not reported everything that was going on in the mine prior to the failure. He said this renewed an anger that he hasn't felt for some time, adding that all this could have been avoided.
A different Labor Department report this past spring labeled MSHA "negligent" for its role in the Crandall Canyon disaster. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., last March issued a separate Senate report that blamed MSHA and Robert Murray for the collapses. Kennedy said the 75-page report warranted a criminal investigation by the Justice Department.
Congress called on Crandall Canyon co-owner Murray to appear in front of lawmakers for his take on the allegations, but Murray has remained mum since his colorful news conferences near the mine in the weeks after the initial collapse.
The Deseret News has tried several times recently to reach Murray for comment. His son, Rob Murray, said in an e-mail that his father is not granting interviews.
The six miners who were trapped and killed by the massive collapse on Aug. 6 were Kerry Allred, Don Erickson, Luis Hernandez, Carlos Payan, Brandon Phillips and Manuel Sanchez.
Three more men — Dale Black, Brandon Kimber and MSHA's Gary Jensen — were killed in another collapse 10 days later trying to rescue their friends.
Department of Labor spokesman Matthew Faraci said at the end of the meeting that family members of the deceased were walking up to Stickler and hugging him and thanking him for all he had done and been through.
Memorials and the unveiling of a sculpture honoring the nine men are planned for next month and September in Huntington and also near the entrance of the sealed mine where the men lost their lives.


E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com

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