Federal mine safety officials have completed a yearlong investigation of the owner and the former operator of the Wilberg Mine, where 27 Utah workers died in a 1984 fire, officials say.
And a spokesman in the office of Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah, said Mine Safety and Health Administration officials said "unofficially, it's going to be forwarded to the Justice Department" for possible criminal prosecution."The manager in the case has told me he's going to recommend prosecution," said Nielson staff member Bill Sampson. "He said they determined violations were severe enough they'll recommend the Justice Department prosecute."
But MSHA officials refused to confirm whether they would recommend prosecution.
The agency last March launched a special investigation to determine whether there were willful violations of safety rules contributing to the deaths of 26 men and one woman in the Dec. 19, 1984, fire in the Wilberg Mine.
The fire was blamed on a faulty air compressor, which MSHA said mine management failed to remove or repair "when it was known to be in an unsafe condition."
The special probe was initiated at the same time MSHA issued 34 citations against mine owner Utah Power & Light Co. and Emery Mining Corp., mine operator at the time of the deadly blaze.
The agency ordered the companies to pay $111,470 in fines, the largest penalty it had ever assessed for alleged safety breaches. However, an administrative law judge last month ruled UP&L was not liable for the fines because it was not the mine operator at the time. MSHA lawyers are evaluating whether to appeal.
MSHA spokesman Frank O'Gorman, in a telephone interview from Arlington, Va., confirmed the special investigation was complete, but said there was no official decision on whether to recommend prosecution against either UP&L or Emery Mining.
Copies of the probe report were sent to MSHA investigators for signing this week and it was scheduled next week to be reviewed by Jerry Spicer, administrator for coal mine safety and health.
It then will be turned over to the agency's legal staff for review "and whatever action they feel appropriate," O'Gorman said.
The options are "do nothing or refer it to the Justice Department and let the Justice Department, if it's referred to them, take whatever actions they wish," he said.
Sampson said Robert Nesbit, MSHA's chief of special investigations, told him the case would be referred with a recommendation for prosecution.
Nesbit declined comment, referring all questions to O'Gorman. And the agency spokesman said a decision would not be made "until after our lawyers go through it."
Normally an MSHA special investigation, if turned over to the Justice Department, would contain a recommendation for prosecution, O'Gorman said.
Attorneys for UP&L last fall expressed what they called a "legitimate concern" the probe would lead to criminal indictments.
"In mine accidents involving multiple fatalities, investigations by MSHA special investigators have often led to criminal indictments of mine management or surpervisory employees," UP&L lawyer Paul Proctor said in an affidavit.
The statement was filed as part of the company's attempt to prevent release of dozens of court documents related to an earlier civil suit by the victims' survivors. That case was settled out of court, reportedly with the heirs receiving $22 million.