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MSHA cites poor design, anemic oversight in Crandall Canyon disaster

Published December 4, 2008 1:53 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Originally published July 24, 2008

The Crandall Canyon coal mine was so poorly engineered that it was primed for a collapse, but federal regulators failed repeatedly to catch the flaws and approved a plan that was "destined to fail," a pair of reports on the disaster said today.

Six miners died in a catastrophic collapse in the central Utah mine on Aug. 6, and three rescuers were killed and six injured 10 days later.

The investigation by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration found that the mine was inadequately designed; that the operator violated the approved mine plan, further weakening the structure; and that information signaling potential danger was withheld.

MSHA hit the operator, Genwal Resources Inc., with $1.6 million in fines for a series of violations it characterized as highly negligent and showing reckless disregard. It also fined the company's engineering firm, Agapito Associates Inc., $220,000 for showing reckless disregard in its analysis of the roof-control plan.

Assistant Labor Secretary Richard Stickler said it is the largest fine in any coal mine disaster.

Meantime, a Labor Department review was harshly critical of MSHA's role in the disaster, saying the agency repeatedly failed to detect any of the warning signs and deficiencies in the mine.

Taken in tandem, the reports show that the Aug. 6 disaster was set in motion more than two years ago with poor design, a shoddy approval process, an operator that violated its mine plan and three times failed to report serious structural problems, and MSHA inspectors who were not thorough in their reviews.

Family members of the victims who sat through a five-hour briefing on the MSHA report said they did not learn anything startlingly new, but it was good to have additional details confirming their suspicions of what led to the twin disasters.

Colin King, a Salt Lake City attorney representing the heirs of the six trapped miners and two injured rescuers in a lawsuit against the mine's owners, operators and consultants, said the report "brings pain and progress to these families, a strange mixture of knowledge and additional questions.

"This [MSHA] report confirms and underscores the allegations we made in our complaint," he said. "This clearly makes it known that these deaths and injuries were preventable."

Operator Failures: The MSHA report tells for the first time how, just three days before the Aug. 6 collapse, the intense pressure on the coal pillars supporting the roof - and some 2,000 feet of mountaintop above - caused coal to explode from the pillars, a sign of instability. But neither that outburst, nor two others in March of 2007, were reported to MSHA.

"These reporting failures were particularly critical because they deprived MSHA of the information it needed to properly assess and approve [the operator's] mining plans," the investigative team wrote.

Investigators found that computer modeling of the mine plan by Agapito Associates, Inc., the engineering firm hired by the mine's co-owner, Murray Energy Corp., determined the mine would be unstable, but did not submit the findings to MSHA when the company sought approval to mine. Other models were badly flawed.

And the mine operator further undermined the stability by violating the approved mine plan and cutting additional coal from the floor and thick barrier walls inside the mine.

Investigators said the Aug. 16 fatalities could not have been prevented because there was no way to predict the incident, no amount of reinforcement could have protected the workers, and "the prospect of saving the entrapped miners' lives warranted the heroic efforts of the rescue workers."

In a statement, Genwal Resources, which is co-owned by Murray Energy and Utah-based Intermountain Power Agency, said the report was disappointing.

"Regrettably, this report does not have the benefit of all of the facts and appears to have been tainted in part by 10 months of relentless political clamoring to lay blame for these tragic events," the company said.

Because of that, some experts did not participate in the investigation and their expertise was missing from the report, Genwal said.

A spokeswoman for Agapito Associates said the company was reviewing the findings and could not comment.

The MSHA report confirms earlier congressional investigations that determined the Crandall Canyon mine plan was dangerously unsafe and that MSHA failed to catch the flaws.

The House committee asked the U.S. Attorney for Utah to review the matter for criminal charges. That screening is ongoing, said Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for federal prosecutor. Stickler said MSHA has already shared information with the U.S. Attorney, and will meet with prosecutors again as soon as a meeting can be scheduled.

Agency Neglect: Despite the deficiencies in the design and operation of Crandall Canyon, the Labor Department report, released this7 evening, points to numerous junctures where MSHA should have caught the shortcomings, but failed in its oversight.

The engineering data supporting the proposal to mine in Crandall Canyon was not adequately reviewed, and the agency did not seek technical advice from its own experts.

Personnel in the Price field office were not allowed to offer input on the mining plan and, even though the March coal outbursts were not formally reported, MSHA officials were aware of the problems and did not follow up.

Furthermore, measures to support the mine's roof were not adequately reviewed by inspectors when mining was under way, the report said.

"MSHA's failure to adequately evaluate the roof control plans contributed to the occurrence of the August 6th accident," investigators wrote.

The Labor report also criticizes MSHA's handling of the rescue operations, saying it lacked clear leadership, improperly allowed media and family members into the mine, did not establish the agency as the primary source of information and did not correct misinformation provided by Robert Murray, the mine's defiant co-owner.

Rescue organizers also failed to do a formal risk assessment to determine whether exposing rescuers to dangerous conditions was warranted, investigators said.

A Labor official said the department still is determining whether disciplinary actions will be taken.

The report found no evidence MSHA was improperly influenced by Murray or other company officials, contradicting an earlier congressional report.

Coal Mine Collapse: The collapse of the Crandall Canyon mine in the early morning hours of Aug. 6 came with such force that it registered as a 3.9 seismic event and the destruction spanned half a square mile.

Rescue operations lurched along at an excruciatingly slow pace due to subsequent tremors and instability in the mine.

Then, on the evening of Aug. 16, the mine buckled and heaved violently again, crumpling the steel supports and chain-link fencing installed to reinforce the entryways. It was a devastating setback that killed three rescuers and dashed any remaining hope of recovering the six trapped men.

Two weeks later, the recovery efforts were called off.

It was Utah's worst mining catastrophe since the Wilberg Mine fire in 1984 killed 27 people.