Attorneys representing the families of six victims of the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster said they will file a lawsuit in 3rd District Court this morning against companies involved with the mine. Two men injured during rescue attempts also are named as plaintiffs.
Attorneys first filed notice of their intent to sue in January.
The lawsuit demands "unspecified compensatory damages" and asks for "substantial punitive damages" as well.
The suit will allege several companies including two owned by mine co-owner Robert "Bob" Murray have responsibility for the catastrophic "bounce" on Aug. 6 that killed six men and injured several others. A bounce happens when coal under pressure flies off a wall, roof or floor of a mine.
The six men killed were Kerry Allred, Don Erickson, Luis Hernandez, Carlos Payan, Brandon Phillips and Manuel Sanchez.
Three more men Dale Black, Gary Jensen and Brandon Kimber were killed Aug. 16 while trying to rescue the six. Those three are not included in the suit.
The lawsuit claims Murray knew about specific dangers in the mine much earlier than he has stated publicly.
A March 11 coal bounce led to the closure of the mine's North Barrier under conditions virtually identical to those in the South Barrier area, where miners were trapped five months later by the Aug. 6 bounce, according to the complaint.
Murray knew about the earlier bounce "on the very day it occurred, contrary to his later claims that he had not heard of it before the fatal August 6 bounce," attorneys for the Salt Lake City law firm Dewsnup King & Olsen said in a statement that summarizes the suit.
Plaintiffs include heirs of all six miners killed on Aug. 6 and two of the rescuers who were injured on Aug. 16. They allege the "defendants were guilty of negligent, reckless and intentional violations of numerous good mining practices and regulations, which led to deaths and injuries."
The complaint alleges "retreat mining" of barrier pillars in the mine's West Mains area was unreasonably dangerous and that "mine owners engaged in retreat mining of the barrier pillars contrary to long-standing plans by the mine's prior owners not to remove those barrier pillars due to safety risks," according to the attorneys' statement.
Plaintiffs are also claiming that mine owners engaged in mining practices at or near the time of the Aug. 6 bounce that were forbidden by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) when the agency approved the mining plan in place for Crandall Canyon.
Plaintiffs allege Murray Energy and UtahAmerican Energy, primarily through Murray, "usurped the role of MSHA to be in charge of communications with the miner families during the rescue operations, and that the companies' handling of the interactions with the families was so outrageously insensitive as to cause additional emotional distress to the families."
An audit of MSHA's actions concerning the Crandall Canyon disaster, released Monday by the Labor Department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG), detailed the North Barrier coal bounce.
The mine operator submitted a plan to pull out pillars in the North Barrier area on Dec. 20, 2006. In an internal company memo, according to the audit, a mine official said that in a Feb. 1, 2007, meeting he and an MSHA official discussed the need for approval of that plan within 20 days. "He said he would help expedite the process," the memo says of the MSHA official.
"MSHA approved the plan on Feb. 2, 2007," the audit adds.
On March 11, 2007, a severe "bump" occurred, in which coal burst out in the North Barrier vicinity. It left debris near an entrance and forced the end to mining at the North Barrier. However, mining continued at the South Barrier, the location of the fatal bounce nearly five months later.
According to the OIG, MSHA's roof control supervisor said the mine operator had not reported to MSHA the severity of the damage from the March bump. The operator informed MSHA there had been an event when it decided to discontinue mining the North Barrier, but "the operator did not submit a written accident report," the audit says.
The audit notes that an MSHA regulation requires the operator to immediately contact MSHA "once the operator knows or should know that an accident had occurred." It adds that in a subsection of this regulation, two definitions of an accident are: an unplanned roof or rib fall in an active working that impairs ventilation or impedes passage, and a "coal or rock outburst that causes withdrawal of miners or which disrupts regular mining activity for more than an hour."
The OIG was unable to interview Murray Energy personnel to determine why the company apparently had decided the event was not reportable. On the advice of lawyers, company employees declined to be interviewed. Murray Energy provided documents to MSHA, but some were redacted.
"We did note in documents derived from Murray Energy an assertion that local MSHA officials had agreed to a definition of a 'reportable accident' that was less stringent than existing regulations," the audit says.
The internal memo from the mine's operator was written three months before Murray Energy bought the mine.
The memo, dated May 1, 2006, says, "Meeting was held at the Price field officer (of MSHA) ... in relation to the bounces and the reporting of such ... and the definition of accident as it occurs on the longwall face. A consensus of the group was if the bounce occurs and it basically does not cause harm to personnel then the reporting of the event does not need to be done."
Two MSHA employees mentioned in the memo acknowledged that a discussion of the regulatory reporting requirement took place at the initiative of the mine operator. "However, they deny that the discussion included any mention of adjusting the definition, much less an agreement," says the audit.
According to the audit, an engineering report submitted to MSHA says the decision to end mining in the North Barrier was because of "heavy damage" caused by "a large bump," the audit says. The report also recommended increasing the pillar size in the South Barrier for protection.
"Although MSHA had not conducted its own inspection of the impacts of the March bump in the North Barrier, it was informed by the mine operator within days that an event had occurred," the audit says.
"In addition, the April 18, 2007, engineering report discussing the nature and severity of the bump was provided to MSHA on May 15, 2007. Therefore, MSHA had sufficient information to warrant further inquiries about the bump and their meaning prior to considering and approving the proposed plan for the South Barrier."
The mine operator submitted a plan to pull pillars in the South Barrier area on May 16, 2007.
"In a June 13, 2007, e-mail to the Roof Control Supervisor (an MSHA official), a mine official wrote, 'I am in a staff meeting right now and they are all asking when the plan for the (South Barrier) pillaring in Crandall will be approved. ... I have a fire under my (deleted) to get this approved.' In a June 14, 2007, e-mail the mine official wrote, 'Are you making any headway? Is there anything I can do to help you?"' the audit relates.
It adds, "MSHA approved the plan on June 15, 2007."Murray Energy did not immediately return calls and e-mails seeking comment on the suit.