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Justice asked to weigh charges in 9 mine deaths

/ Source: The Associated Press

Federal mining officials on Wednesday asked prosecutors to decide whether criminal charges are warranted in the deaths of nine people in last year's collapse of the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration has been investigating two cave-ins in August 2007 at Crandall Canyon that killed six miners and three rescuers. MSHA already has fined Genwal Resources Inc., a subsidiary of Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp., $1.34 million for alleged violations that directly contributed to the deaths of six miners. Agapito Associates Inc., a Grand Junction, Colo., mining engineering consultant, was fined $220,000 for an allegedly faulty analysis of the mine's design. They were the largest fines ever imposed on a U.S. coal mining operation.

Six miners were trapped on Aug. 6, 2007, in a cave-in and remain entombed more than 1,500 feet below ground. Three rescuers, including a government mine safety inspector, were killed in a second collapse on Aug. 16, 2007, while trying to tunnel to the men.

"Through its investigation of the tragic accidents last year at Crandall Canyon, MSHA determined that the operator and its engineering consultants demonstrated reckless disregard for safety," said Richard E. Stickler, acting assistant secretary of labor for MSHA. "MSHA has referred this case for possible criminal charges."

The U.S. attorney in Utah has requested that the Labor Department, which oversees MSHA, halt its civil proceedings dealing with Crandall Canyon until its investigation is complete, officials said. A judge with the federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission — which handles all MSHA citations, fines and cases — has yet to rule on the request.

Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney declined immediate comment late Wednesday.

MSHA has said the mine was "destined to fail" because the mining company made critical miscalculations and didn't report early warning signs. MSHA itself also was faulted by its parent agency, both for lax oversight before the collapse and for its handling of the fatal rescue effort.

Murray Energy chief Bob Murray has insisted that the type of mining taking place at Crandall Canyon had nothing to do with the collapse. He argued from the start that it was caused by an earthquake.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, also made a criminal referral in May to the Justice Department on the Crandall Canyon disaster.

UtahAmerican Energy Inc., a subsidiary of Murray Energy, owns the mine.