WASHINGTON House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., wants the Justice Department to investigate whether there was a conspiracy among Crandall Canyon Mine officials to withhold information from the government about a "bounce" at the mine before the Aug. 6, 2007, accident that killed six miners and a subsequent accident that killed three mine rescuers.
An attorney for the mine released a statement calling the conspiracy allegation zealous political grandstanding.
As a result of the chairman's investigation into the accident, which was released Thursday, Miller asked the U.S. attorney general to investigate whether Laine W. Adair, general manager of Genwal Resources Inc., the mine operator, either on his own or "in conspiracy with others" purposely withheld information about the bounce a violent bursting of coal and rock caused by pressure or stress in order to continue mining at Crandall Canyon.
Miller said he was now going after Adair instead of Murray Energy head Bob Murray because of more evidence that Adair was directly responsible for communicating with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. Committee counsel Patrick Findlay said they want to learn whether Adair was part of a conspiracy and, if so, how high he went in withholding this information. They were reluctant to give more details, saying they wanted the Justice Department to take up the investigation.
U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett L. Tolman said "further investigation and consideration of criminal charges" will be taken seriously. "We will carefully screen the material provided to us," Tolman said in a statement released shortly after the Thursday morning press conference in Washington ended.
Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s spokeswoman, Lisa Roskelley, said hard-working coal miners in Utah, and the entire country, "deserve to know that mining companies are being held responsible."
"If there was intentional misdirection on the part of individuals at Crandall Canyon in order to receive MSHA approval, they should be prosecuted. The fact is that this report doesn't make the nine families who lost someone in this tragedy whole, but hopefully it can at least be used to ensure that this does not happen again," she said.
After reviewing more than 100,000 pages of documents produced by Murray Energy, which operates the mine, and more than 300,000 pages from the Labor Department, Miller said the investigation found that the accident resulted from a mining plan that "never should have been submitted by the mine safety operator and never been approved by the Mine Safety and Health Administration," mainly because the March bounce before the accident should have alerted those involved that the mine was unsafe.
Two attorneys, one representing Murray Energy and responding on behalf of Genwal Resources, and the other representing Adair directly, responded to Miller's press conference.
"As with many of his prior statements, there is no credible basis for Mr. Miller's reckless allegations," said attorney Kevin N. Anderson, who was speaking for Genwal. "They are merely political grandstanding as he continues to play to his constituents. We are confident that any impartial investigator will reject Mr. Miller's allegation."
Anderson acknowledged the possibility of a criminal investigation has been in play for some time. "Mr. Miller sent a letter last month to the Justice Department recommending a criminal investigation of Laine Adair, the general manager at Genwal Resources' Crandall Canyon Mine. This callous inference is based on a radically incomplete review of the facts by Mr. Miller and ignores contradictory records and prior investigators' findings."
The House committee used Northwest Corp., an engineering firm, to re-evaluate the work Agapito Associates did in creating the mining plan at Crandall Canyon and to figure out whether MSHA should have approved an amendment concerning the mine's roof control plan and other technical matters.
During the course of its investigation, which started shortly after the August accident, the committee learned that Murray Energy and its subsidiaries knew about a "significant bump that occurred within the mine on or about March 10, 2007," but did not properly report it to MSHA. Instead, mine management invited the Bureau of Land Management to the mine.
"This is curious: While MSHA is the federal agency responsible for the health and safety of mine workers, BLM is the federal agency responsible for collecting lease payments from mining companies that operate on federal lands. The mine operator called BLM," according to the committee report.
During a deposition for the investigation, Allyn Davis, MSHA District 9 supervisor, told the committee that photos of the damage after the March bump and his conversations with Adair about the bump "don't match." Miller said Adair "minimized the severity of the March bump" based on what the committee learned.
"It is quite possible that had MSHA known the full severity of the March bump, MSHA would not have approved the subsequent development and retreat mining of the south barrier," according to the committee's report.
"Adair and others at Genwal may have purposely misled MSHA about the severity of the March bump, fearing MSHA would close the mine, and continued to adhere to the mischaracterization after the August incidents in an effort to downplay the foreseeability of the August incident," according to the committee's report.
"I think it's appropriate for the U.S. attorney to review this case, and if the evidence warrants, take action to hold people accountable," Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, said in a statement. "The families whose loved ones lie entombed in the mountain deserve answers. Miners who go underground every day deserve to work under the safest possible conditions."
The committee's top-ranking Republican, Howard "Buck" McKeon, also of California, said Congress has final oversight over federal agencies but cautioned against reading too much into Miller's call for investigation, with MSHA yet to complete its final investigation. McKeon said there will not be a "complete picture" of what actually went on at the mine until MSHA issues its findings.<
"When Congress seeks to exercise investigatory power in the immediate aftermath of an accident, even before official investigations are complete, it raises serious questions," McKeon said, adding that "one misstep by Congress could inadvertently jeopardize our ability to uncover the truth or properly assign responsibility.
"Today's report unfortunately offers little in the way of new information to the families of those who lost their lives at Crandall Canyon," McKeon said.
Adair's attorney, Gregory Poe, said the criminal investigation request is "deeply disappointing and utterly unjustified."
"The facts will show that Mr. Adair's conduct was entirely proper," Poe said. "We are confident that the Justice Department will agree that a prosecution is wholly unwarranted."
Adair invoked his Fifth Amendment rights when asked to talk with the committee during its investigation, as did Bob Murray, president of Murray Energy, and Bruce Hill, president of UtahAmerican.
MSHA spokesman Matthew Faraci said the official MSHA investigation will determine the accident's cause. "Until this report is released, it would be premature and speculative to comment on Congressman Miller's review."
Colin King, an attorney representing six of the victims and two others injured during rescue attempts, said he welcomed Thursday's report and its conclusions, saying it supports allegations in a lawsuit the families filed one month ago in 3rd District Court.The call for a criminal investigation indicates the mine owners' and operators' conduct was "even worse than negligent, because they had plenty of warning and clear indications that if they continued that same retreat mining plan that caused the bounce in March that this was going to happen again, and that it did happen," King said.