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Year after mine collapse, many failures clear

The collapse of the Crandall Canyon mine one year ago was so extensive, federal officials found no other mining disaster in the last 50 years to compare to it.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The collapse of the Crandall Canyon mine one year ago was so extensive, federal officials found no other mining disaster in the last 50 years to compare to it.

Hundreds of coal pillars, overloaded by aggressive mining that carved out too many voids, collapsed within seconds on Aug. 6, 2007, entombing six miners nearly half a mile underground. Satellite radar images show that a 69-acre section of the mine caved in — the equivalent of 63 football fields without the end zones.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration said the mine was "destined to fail" because the mining company made critical miscalculations and didn't report early warning signs. But MSHA itself also was faulted by its parent agency, both for lax oversight before the collapse and for its handling of a haphazard rescue effort that left three more people dead.

Regulators acknowledge the rescue tunneling should never have been attempted because it only made the mine more unstable.

Relatives say they now know both the mine company and federal regulators failed the miners.

"The disappointment I have is knowing they'll never be able to get those boys out," said Frank Allred, the older brother of Kerry Allred, a ram-car operator and one of the trapped miners. "I see those bodies in that black hole totally covered in coal."

At each step of the way, starting months before the disaster, Crandall Canyon was doomed, according to 1,400 pages of government and congressional reports.

A day of reckoning came two weeks ago, with the U.S. Department of Labor scolding MSHA for rubber-stamping a risky mining plan and launching an ill-conceived rescue effort that left nobody clearly in charge.

Earlier that day, the mining agency blamed a subsidiary of Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp. for digging unauthorized coal and its engineers for a series of blunders on Crandall Canyon's supposed stability.

On Wednesday, family members were to mark the anniversary of the cave-in by dedicating a circle of nine tombstones commissioned by mine boss Bob Murray in a serene spot of Crandall Canyon.

Another memorial, a bronze panel now being cast of the faces of the nine dead, will be dedicated in the nearby town of Huntington on Sept. 14.

Criminal charges?
The miners' survivors have received some company and worker's compensation and Social Security benefits. They've also filed lawsuits.

Federal prosecutors are considering criminal charges. MSHA cited Murray Energy affiliate Genwal Resources Inc. for negligence. Engineers Agapito Associates Inc. of Grand Junction, Colo., was cited for "reckless disregard." The companies were fined a total of $1.8 million, the largest fines levied on a U.S. coal-mining operation.

MSHA found that longwall mining had weakened both sides of the so-called Main West tunnels that collapsed, even before Genwal Resources took over in 2006.

At first, city block-size coal barriers — 450 feet wide and three-quarters of a mile long — protected both sides of the Main West tunnels from the extensively mined "gobs" beyond the barriers. The mountain reacted to those gobs by transferring more weight on the crucial barrier pillars. But Genwal's aggressive mining whittled the barriers to as narrow as 135 feet.

Recklessness 'directly contributed' to 9 deaths
As early as March 2007, pillars started unexpectedly collapsing. The mine failed to notify MSHA of the early danger signs, instead alerting the more industry-friendly Bureau of Land Management. Engineers failed to use the opportunity to recalibrate their modeling of Crandall's supposed stability.

Recklessness by Agapito Associates "directly contributed to the death of nine people," the mining agency said. In one case it miscalculated depth covers that are fundamental to safety equations at underground mines. In another, a panel of experts determined, the firm overstated the strength of support pillars by a factor of two. The company refused to comment on the findings.

When the mine collapse finally occurred, it was so powerful it registered as a 3.9 earthquake.

Douglas S. Dreger, a seismologist at the University of California, Berkeley, said in the journal Science last month that his analysis strongly suggested that the mountain crumbled in two stages: After the pillars collapsed, giant, angled slabs of sandstone above the mine abruptly shifted.

At that point there was little if anything that could have been done to save the six miners — drilling ultimately determined that the tunnel where the men were presumed trapped had only a half-foot of air space left. But federal officials concluded the rescue effort was mishandled both by mining-company officials and MSHA.

The MSHA report heavily criticized Bob Murray's volatile behavior during the crisis, especially at daily briefings for family members, where he "frequently became very irate and would start yelling," even making young children cry, it said. He told family members that "the media is telling you lies" and "the union is your enemy."

It took intervention by Sheriff Lamar Guymon to finally keep Murray out of the family meetings.

MSHA faced its own criticism in the Labor Department's report, which faulted the mining agency oversight's and highlighted a quirk of MSHA chief Richard Stickler.

Nothing, district staffers recounted for investigators, seemed more important to Stickler than keeping a continuous log of the progress made or lost by tunneling rescuers. The boss insisted on hourly measurements, even if crews had to halt the rescue digging. When various MSHA underlings failed to promptly and precisely perform this task, they said Stickler blew up.

"Everybody got fired there at least once," one MSHA employee told Labor Department investigators confidentially. Another said Stickler threatened to "fire us all. It wasn't just me. It was fire us all and get more players, if we couldn't get it in that book the way he wanted it."

Deadly rescue effort
Stickler denied threatening to fire or replace anybody.

On Aug. 16, another cave-in killed three members of a crew boring through rubble toward the trapped men. The bodies of the rescuers — Dale "Bird" Black, 48; Brandon Kimber, 29; and Gary Jensen, 53, an MSHA accident investigator — were recovered. Six others were hurt.

When the rescue effort turned deadly, it was called off for good. The mine was not only closed but walled off.

Regulators say they know of no technology that could allow anyone to safely re-enter the mine to recover the bodies of Kerry Allred, 58; Don Erickson, 50; Luis Hernandez, 23; Carlos Payan, 22; Brandon Phillips, 24; and Manuel Sanchez, 42.

"That would be a very high-risk operation," Stickler said.

'Cop without a gun'
In the year since the disaster, MSHA has heightened scrutiny of deep underground mines and hired 170 more inspectors.

Utah created an Office of Mine Safety with limited authority — "a cop without a gun," said Mike Dalpiaz, a regional vice president for the United Mine Workers of America. It won't inspect mines but will serve as a clearinghouse for complaints about mine safety.

Also in the past year, Murray Energy shut down another of its Utah mines, the West Ridge mine, because of "unexpected and unusual stress conditions." And Arch Coal Inc., Utah's largest producer, said it was bypassing $100 million of coal in the same region to avoid the kind of danger that led to the collapse at Crandall Canyon.

Coal mining continues elsewhere in Utah, and few miners quit after last summer's disasters. Miners pull down around $65,500 a year, double the region's average wage, according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

"My husband is a coal miner. My dad's a coal miner. My brother's a coal miner," said Lorinda Brown, who also has worked for coal companies. "It does carry a risk — that's why they're paid so well. But the coal mines actually are pretty safe. I think what happened at Crandall, Murray got a little greedy and was robbing coal where he shouldn't have been taking it out."