PRICE Mine collapses that killed nine men a year ago were the result of an "inadequate mine design" at the Crandall Canyon Mine, according to a report released today.
"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 an afternoon press briefing detailing the long-awaited report.
Families of the dead miners heard the results of the report on the collapses earlier this morning from Stickler.
Wendy Black, wife of killed rescuer Dale Black, said that what she heard in the briefing from the Mine Safety and Health Administration only reinforced what she already knew about the mine plan for Crandall Canyon.
"It was flawed to begin with," Black said.
The report revealed that MSHA fined mine operator Genwal Resources Inc. $1.6 million, while also fining mining engineer 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) contributing directly to the accident.
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. Three rescuers died following a fourth coal burst while rescuers attempted to reach the original six trapped miners.
The report further accuses Genwal of not revising its mining plan following the March bursts, opting rather to continue to "mine in areas with unsafe conditions."
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 owner Bob 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 an earlier 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.
Erickson said she wasn't surprised by the investigation's results.
"I didn't learn anything I didn't already basically know," Erickson said. "I'm glad that they did a thorough investigation."
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's intent to take another look at the mining plans for several deep mines like Crandall Canyon. She credited Stickler with making "good points" that had to do with a new checklist that mine inspectors will have to go by during inspections.
Black said one of the hardest parts of the meeting was seeing photos of the Aug. 16 collapse where her husband died. Although the report was somewhat redundant to what Black already knew, she was at least glad to have a copy of the thick report for herself.
"It's all in black and white now," Black said. She also gave a copy to one of her lawyers who was at the meeting Thursday.
Black is anticipating yet another report she said is due out in a few days that will include an internal investigation into the actual MSHA investigation.
Attorney Colin King, whose firm represents multiple families of the mine disaster victims, called the report "tough" and said there is a lot of new information in it that corroborates claims that families are making in their lawsuit. "It underlines and emphasized the claims we made in our complaint," King said.
King said Stickler also had information relevant to the lawsuit. "It was his (Stickler's) belief that the operator had tried to mislead inspectors by not providing all the data on the north barrier," King said. King was also surprised to learn of the severity of not one, but two bounces that took place on March 7 and March 10 on the north barrier
King said Stickler told the families that the collapses were tragedies that "could have been prevented and should have been prevented."
Cesar Sanchez, brother of miner Manuel Sanchez, who died in the initial collapse, said everything he heard today 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.
Families filed into the Holiday Inn here at about 9 a.m. and the doors were closed with police standing near the entrance to the hotel and meeting room. Lawyers for families who have filed lawsuits also were seen entering the room where Stickler was waiting with copies of the investigation results.
MSHA called the Aug. 6 collapse a "catastrophic coal outburst when roof-supporting pillars failed and violently ejected coal over a half-mile area" deep inside the Emery County mine. That first collapse killed six miners. An MSHA inspector and two other men died 10 days later in another collapse while trying to rescue the six trapped workers.
A Labor Department report this past spring labeled MSHA "negligent" for its role in the Crandall Canyon disaster. Families of killed and injured miners have filed multiple lawsuits seeking answers and damages.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., last March issued a separate Senate report that blamed MSHA and Murray Energy CEO 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 press conferences near the mine in the weeks after the initial collapse.
Murray insisted in the beginning that an earthquake caused the mine to collapse. Later University of Utah seismologists concluded a collapse over a 50-acre area registered as a 3.9 magnitude seismic event.
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 was not granting interviews.
The six miners who were trapped and killed by a massive collapse Aug. 6, 2007, 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 in another collapse 10 days later trying to rescue their colleagues and friends.
Some questioned MSHA's timing on a day when many Utahns celebrate Pioneer Day. MSHA officials knew about the significance of the day.
Wendy Black noted how a lot of Utahns are gone or busy that day.
"I just find it really strange they did it on a Utah holiday," Black said.
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.
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