Feds blame operator for mine collapse

July 24, 2008 9:20:53 PM PDT
The operator of a collapsed Utah mine violated safety protocols by cutting coal pillars that should have been left standing to prevent cave-ins, federal regulators said Thursday. The officials said a subsidiary of Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp. undermined other pillars by excavating coal from tunnel floors. They also faulted the company's engineering firm, Agapito Associates Inc. of Grand Junction, Colo., for conducting a flawed evaluation of mining dangers.

Murray Energy chief Bob Murray has insisted that taking down the pillars, a practice called retreat mining, had nothing to do with the collapse. He argued from the start that it was caused by an earthquake.

At a news conference Thursday, Mine Safety and Health Administration chief Richard Stickler disputed that, instead blaming poor engineering.

"First of all, it was not - and I'll repeat not - a natural occurring earthquake, but in fact it was a catastrophic outburst of the coal pillars that were used to support the ground above the coal seam," Stickler said.

The agency is fining Murray Energy affiliate Genwal Resources Inc. $1.6 million and Agapito $220,000 for the disaster - the largest fines ever imposed on a U.S. coal mining operation, he said.

The Aug. 6 collapse trapped six miners whose bodies haven't been recovered. Three others were killed during a rescue attempt. MSHA said Genwal Resources misled regulators about the dangers and violated its approved mining plan.

Genwal responded in a lengthy statement contending "politics" and congressional meddling corrupted the MSHA investigation.

"This report does not have the benefit of all of the facts and appears to have been tainted by ten months of relentless political clamoring to lay blame for these tragic events," the company said. Agapito Associates said it hadn't had a chance to study the report and couldn't immediately comment.

The MSHA report confirmed congressional investigations that faulted Genwal for courting danger at the mine.

Internal company memos revealed that the company was digging into massive blocks of coal that should have been left standing to hold the mine up, according to a March report issued by Sen. Edward Kennedy's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

The same report found that the company was excavating coal from tunnel floors, undermining other coal pillars straining under the tremendous weight of the mountain.

MSHA's report said the operator didn't have permission to mine the "bottom coal." Yet internal company memos made no secret of the practice, which continued within days of the collapse.

Colin King, a lawyer for families suing Murray Energy and affiliates, said the report showed that the company failed to properly report early signs of trouble. MSHA officials said they weren't made aware of a partial collapse of another section of the mine in March 2007, seven months before the fatal summer cave-ins.

And in a previously unreported incident, the report said Genwal Resources failed to report a coal "outburst" on Aug. 3 that half-buried an equipment operator in loose coal. The operator was uninjured, according to the report.

Kristin Kimber, the widow of rescue miner Brandon Kimber, said the report provides her with a sense of closure.

"Now we know the complete truth and we can move on from here," said Kimber, a mother of three. "But there are people I feel who need to be held accountable for their decisions and their actions ... that's what I'm looking forward to."

MSHA didn't escape criticism from a parent agency. A second report issued late Thursday by the U.S. Department of Labor faulted the mining agency for lax oversight. It said MSHA failed to uncover problems and inconsistencies in the engineering and roof-control plans at Crandall Canyon and gambled on a risky rescue operation.

MSHA tapped a district manager, Richard A. Gates of Birmingham, Ala., as chief of the investigative team. Six other members are career MSHA officials.

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Associated Press writer Paul Foy reported from Salt Lake City.

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