SALT LAKE CITY — In pleading guilty Wednesday, owners of the Crandall Canyon Mine admitted to safety violations that preceded two collapses that killed nine men in 2007.
The pleas may have answered a long-running question about whether Genwal Resources — the operators of the mine — were violating federal regulations when it came to the safety of the mine, but the convictions don't hold them responsible for the fatal collapse.
Wednesday's hearing also failed to bring the apology the families of those men say they really wanted. They found little satisfaction in the guilty pleas or the $500,000 in fines that were ordered by U.S. District Judge David Sam.
"We wanted these people to be held in accountability," said Kristin Kimber Cox, whose ex-husband died while attempting to rescue six trapped miners. "That would have helped a little bit. We haven't heard any type of apologies. We haven't received any type of acknowledgement. Our hope is the laws will change."
Still, family members say they don't fault the U.S. Attorney's Office for not pursuing heftier criminal charges.
"They did the best they could and that's all they could do," said Wendy Black. "The laws made it so they couldn't do anything."
Black's husband, Dale, was also killed in a second collapse at the mine while trying to rescue trapped miners. Her frustration at the current laws were echoed by the judge.
"My initial take on this is outrage at the miniscule amount provided by the criminal statute," Sam said, before adding: "I know that no amount is adequate to replace the loss of a loved one."
Attorney Neil Kaplan, acting for Genwal Resources, entered the guilty pleas to two misdemeanor criminal charges for willfully violating federal mine health and safety laws. Sam fined the company $250,000 for each count.
The charges aren't directly related to the fatal mine collapses but instead stem from earlier activities at the mine, federal prosecutors said.
Genwal acknowledged it failed to timely report a "significant coal outburst" to the Mining Safety and Health Administration on March 10, 2007, an event that caused the permanent withdrawal of miners from the area.
It also admitted to mining an area on Aug. 3, 2007, that the MSHA-approved roof control plan expressly prohibited. The area was far removed from the location of the catastrophic collapse three days later.
As part of the plea agreement, the U.S. Attorney's Office agreed not to bring other charges against Genwal or any of its related companies or officers in connection with the companies' activities in the Crandall Canyon Mine in 2006 and 2007.
Prosecutor Stewart Walz said that while he knows the case generated public interest due to "the tragic loss of the life and the magnitude of the tragedy," his office brought the charges they knew could be proven at trial beyond a reasonable doubt.
"As the court is aware, not every wrong in society is to be addressed by the criminal process," he said, pointing to other avenues including civil lawsuits, that have been pursued by family members of those killed.
"The role of our office is to enforce the existing laws and that's what we've done," U.S. Attorney David Barlow said after the hearing. "We know that nothing that happened today will bring the loved ones back to the families."
The Crandall Canyon Mine near Huntington collapsed Aug. 6, 2007, entombing six miners: Kerry Allred, Don Erickson, Luis Hernandez, Carlos Payan, Brandon Phillips and Arturo "Manuel" Sanchez.
The collapse of the mine's walls 1,800 feet underground happened with such force it registered as a 4.2-magnitude seismic event.
Fears of the mine's stability stymied early rescue attempts and were later born out in the second collapse that killed three would-be rescuers 10 days later. In addition to the fatalities of Dale Black, Gary Jensen and Brandon Kimber, six other rescuers suffered serious injuries.
Wednesday's court action came 3 ½ years after federal mine safety officials and Congress asked the U.S. Attorney's Office to launch a criminal investigation into the mine's operation.
Edward Havas, who was in court representing "a number of families of victims of this senseless and avoidable tragedy," said they were feeling mixed emotions about the plea agreement. They were happy to have this stage of proceedings behind them, but also "disappointed that the efforts of years has yielded nothing but a couple of misdemeanor offenses."
He called the $500,000 fine "little more than a slap on the wrist." After the hearing, though, Havas said the U.S. Attorney's Office looked at everything and filed what they could considering they would have to show criminal intent on Genwal's part with any charges they filed.
Civil lawsuits brought by relatives of the victims against four companies linked to the mine operation, affiliates, insurance companies and mining consultants were settled in 2009. Although specific terms of the settlements were undisclosed, attorneys for the families said the amount was in excess of $20 million — the amount paid in settling claims related to the 1984 Wilberg mine explosion.
Attorneys for the families said the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration is looking at at least five violations against Genwal Resources, which could lead to fines of $1.5 million on each violation.
"We hope they hit them with every nickel of that," attorney Colin King said. "I'm just pissed off that the system doesn't allow harsher penalties for willful violations of laws meant to protect miners' lives."