Miner Pays Fine after Deadly Cave In

Tuesday, March 13, 2012 @ 02:03 PM gHale

A 2007 Utah mine collapse led to the deaths of nine people and the operator agreed late last week to plead guilty to two misdemeanor criminal charges and pay a $500,000 fine.

Six miners died at Crandall Canyon in central Utah in the August 2007 collapse so powerful it registered as a 3.9-magnitude earthquake. Another cave-in 10 days later killed two rescuers and a federal inspector. The operation eventually ceased after drilling into the mountain found no sign of the trapped men. Their bodies remain buried deep within the mine.

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In documents filed in federal court in Salt Lake City Friday, attorneys for Genwal Resources Inc. said while it agreed to plead guilty to two counts of violating mandatory health and safety standards and pay the fine, the company can withdraw the agreement should the court not accept the plea. Genwal, based in Pepper Pike, OH, is an affiliate of Murray Energy Corp.

The company maintains the mine was safe but said the plea agreement “avoids Genwal putting its former employees, their families, and members of the community at large through the ordeal of reliving the tragic events,” according to a statement Friday from company lawyers.

“Significantly, the agreement reflects the lack of evidence that any conduct by the company caused the accidents,” the statement said.

U.S. Attorney David B. Barlow said the charges support their case. According to the two counts filed Friday, Genwal “willfully violated a mandatory health and safety standard” by failing to report the initial accident to federal authorities within 15 minutes. The second charges the company violated approved roof control plans.

“These are the charges that we felt we could prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” Barlow said.

Relatives of the victims only heard about the charges Friday morning. Surprise was the word bandied about because they thought there would not be any charges filed, said Alan Mortensen, an attorney representing eight of the families.

Mortensen said Genwal’s guilty plea brings some closure.

“It put Genwal in a position where they had to admit there were willful violations,” Mortensen said.

However, he added, the company’s steadfast denial of fault “shows a continuing pattern of them not taking responsibility. It’s very arrogant and unapologetic.”

The company and its insurers previously settled with family members of the dead miners or rescuers, but they did not disclose the terms of the deal. Lawyers on both sides have said it exceeded the more than $20 million paid to families of 27 victims of a 1984 fire at the closed Wilberg mine in the same Utah coal district.

The method of mining used at the Genwal site where the deadly collapse occurred has a history of being disproportionately deadly, according to federal safety studies.

The Crandall Canyon mine collapse happened while miners practiced a method called “retreat mining,” in which pillars of coal hold up an area of the mine’s roof. When they completely mine that area, the company pulls the pillar and grabs the useful coal, causing an intentional collapse.

Retreat mining requires very precise planning and sequencing to ensure roof stability while the pillars supporting the roof remove, according to the American Society of Safety Engineers.

Retreat pillar mining is one of the biggest causes of mine roof collapse deaths, according to studies done by the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health.

“We recognize that nothing we can do will ever bring back the miners who perished, restore the health of those who were injured during the rescue, or erase the nightmares that still haunt those who were firsthand witnesses to these tragedies,” Barlow said. “It is this office’s intent that these charges send the message to mining companies everywhere: Obey the safety laws.”

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