Michael Brandy, Deseret News
Richard Stickler, left, and Richard Gates brief the media Thursday on findings in the Crandall Canyon Mine accident. An independent review chastised mine operators and MSHA.

Richard Stickler, the acting assistant secretary of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, on Friday responded to criticism regarding his handling of the Crandall Canyon disaster and his agency's failure to ensure safe mining practices at the Emery County mine.

During a meeting with the Deseret News editorial board, Stickler said his goal is to change the culture in the mining industry to make mining safer.

A report by an independent review team within the Labor Department, released late Thursday, chastised MSHA for multiple failures during the approval process for the Crandall Canyon Mine's operation plan, as well as during inspections and in the rescue attempt after the August 2007 collapses. Six miners were killed when pillars collapsed in the mine, and their bodies were never recovered. Ten days later, three rescuers died in another collapse. The mine was then permanently closed.

Stickler said Friday that the mine's plan was reviewed by a supervisor at MSHA's Denver office but should have also been reviewed by someone with more computer modeling and technical expertise at the agency's Safety and Health Technology Center in Pittsburgh.

"In order to catch that failure that occurred at Crandall Canyon, one would have had to do the kind of analysis that we did in the accident investigation," he said.

He also blamed the mistake in part on improper application and interpretation of the computer model by the engineers at Agapito Associates, as well as inadequate expertise from the MSHA supervisor responsible at the time.

Stickler said that supervisor is no longer with the agency, and newly implemented policies should address that issue in the future to prevent another Crandall Canyon disaster.

MSHA on Thursday said it had proposed a record $1.6 million fine against mine operator Genwal Resources Inc. for violations directly related to the Crandall Canyon collapses. Genwal is owned by Murray Energy's Chief Executive Officer Robert Murray.

U.S. Rep. George Miller, D. Calif., who is chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, issued a statement Thursday in response to the report.

"Murray Energy should not have proposed the flawed retreat mining plan, and MSHA should not have approved the plan," Miller said. "It is clear that Murray Energy is an outlaw company that recklessly endangered its employees' lives. It is tragic that the deaths of six miners and three rescuers resulted from the reckless actions of a few individuals and inadequate MSHA oversight."

Miller said Murray Energy could face criminal charges: "I am confident that MSHA's additional evidence in support of our criminal referral will provide further assistance to the Department of Justice in aggressively pursuing this criminal matter."

The MSHA and Labor Department reports also drew attention from Utah leaders, including the governor.

"These reports confirmed our worst suspicion: that no mining should have been taking place at the Crandall Canyon Mine due to unsafe conditions. There must be accountability on all levels," said Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. in a prepared statement. "State officials and our newly established Office of Coal Mine Safety are currently reviewing these two reports with an eye toward ensuring that unnecessary tragedies like Crandall Canyon do not occur again."

Stickler on Friday admitted that his tenure at MSHA has not been an easy one, with several fatal mine incidents occurring on his watch. He said despite the criticisms over the agency's handling of the Crandall Canyon incident, he does not regret his decision to come out of retirement to accept his current appointment two years ago.

"I was an underground miner, I love miners, I respect them and to be asked to serve and say no — I won't do it," he said. "I just hope that in January, nobody asks me again."


E-mail: jlee@desnews.com