The conclusions of the federal Mine Safety Health Administration's investigation into the fatal collapses at Crandall Canyon Mine are unequivocal: The deadly cave-in was caused by unsafe mining practices and faulty engineering.
It wasn't a seismic event, as mine co-owner Robert Murray had insisted from the get-go. "In fact, it was a catastrophic outburst of the coal pillars that were used to support the ground above the coal seam," said Richard Stickler, federal Mine Safety and Health Administration assistant secretary, at a press conference in Price Thursday afternoon.
Nine men died in Crandall Canyon Mine last August. The bodies of six men trapped in the initial collapse on Aug. 6 remain buried in the mine. Three rescuers, including an MSHA inspector, died 10 days later during rescue efforts.
More and more, it appears these men's deaths were needless. The mine operator, Genwal Resources Inc., failed to report three "coal outbursts" after they occurred, two in March 2007 and another three days before the first fatal collapse, according to MSHA's findings. This deprived MSHA of information needed to further assess the operator's mining plans.
But worse, federal regulators determined that the operator was taking more coal than allowed from the barrier pillars and floor, which dangerously weakened the strength of the roof support.
MSHA has fined Genwal Resources Inc. more than $1.6 million for violating mining regulations. Most of the fines $1,340,000 were for violations directly contributing to the deaths of six miners. The agency also levied a fine of $220,000 against Agapito Associates Inc., a mining engineering consulting firm, for faulty analysis of the mine's design. The firm, based in Grand Junction, Colo., "failed to recommend safe mining methods and pillar/barrier dimensions," according to an MSHA press release.
The total $1.8 million in fines was the largest penalty imposed in connection with a coal-mining accident in MSHA's history.
Coal mining is inherently risky. No regulation or mine science can cover every circumstance miners will encounter thousands of feet underground, where miners in Utah's coal country labor each day.
Yet, Stickler, in a previous meeting with the Deseret News editorial board, said most coal-mining accidents can be traced to two common factors, either laws were inadequate or they weren't followed. The Crandall Canyon disaster can clearly be attributed to Genwal failing to follow regulations and faulty engineering by a private contractor. The U.S. Department of Labor's independent review also pointed to deficiencies by MSHA officials in approving the plan for retreat mining and failing to appropriately inspect the mine.
These investigations, and at least two others, were conducted to assess what went wrong at Crandall Canyon Mine and to determine if any new regulation or practices can make mining safer. Since the Utah tragedy, MSHA requires that highly technical mining plans be reviewed by both district offices and the national office in Pittsburg.
The coal industry is also rethinking its practices. On Friday, Utah Geological Survey officials said the state's largest coal producer will bypass 4 million tons of coal worth an estimated $100 million in its Dugout Mine in Carbon County. Arch Coal Inc., based in St. Louis, decided to pull back where coal seams dip nearly 3,000 feet underground to avoid the danger that led to the collapse at Crandall Canyon Mine, according to the UGS.
None of these changes will bring back nine good men who perished in Crandall Canyon Mine. But it is hoped that these findings will help make the industry safer and, in some manner, assist the victims' families as they seek further redress through the legal system.