Close to $1M settlement reached on fines in Utah mine disaster
Thursday's $950,000 fine to end the disaster investigation itself was almost twice as big as the fine Murray Energy Co. paid earlier to end a criminal probe into the 2007 Crandall Canyon mine disaster.
That provided some consolation to loved ones of eight miners and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) inspector who were killed in two implosions 10 days apart at the Emery County coal mine.
But there was continued aggravation, too.
Most stemmed from the fact that, in addressing a settlement reached with MSHA to end the civil case, Murray Energy still proclaimed it was not responsible for the disaster that began Aug. 6, 2007, when the mine's walls blew in on a six-man crew deep underground. The disaster worsened Aug. 16 when another implosion ripped into rescuers clawing their way toward the trapped miners through rubble-filled tunnels, killing three more men and injuring six others.
"Had the matter gone to a hearing," said a Murray Energy statement Thursday, "[we] would have presented evidence that the alleged violations did not contribute to the cause or effect of the 2007 accidents."
Added company attorney Michael McKeown in a call to The Salt Lake Tribune: "Our settlement with [MSHA] was entered into solely to avoid causing all of the witnesses and the community to live through the ordeal of dredging up these past memories."
Those statements irritated some of the victims' survivors.
"We are disappointed to see [Murray Energy's] continued denial of a causal connection between the mine plan and mining conditions and this tragedy," said Ed Havas, a Salt Lake City attorney who represented many victims' families in a wrongful death and injury lawsuit against the company. That suit was settled in 2009.
"It would have been nice to see an actual acceptance of responsibility and acknowledgement of the ramifications of what went on at this mine," he added. "It wouldn't affect the legal proceedings, but would have been the right thing to do."
Lola Jensen, whose husband Gary was the MSHA inspector killed in the ill-fated rescue effort, said the company still got off easy. "They settle out. We live with the memories of that disaster 100 times a day. It never goes away. I'm not sure that it ever will."
She took umbrage at recent comments by Murray Energy owner Robert Murray, accusing President Barack Obama of waging a war on coal.
"Now he's politicizing the overregulation of the mining industry," Jensen said. "I am all for mining in Utah. There are many responsible companies that take safety and the lives of the men as first priority. But there are an awful lot of rogue companies in this country that cause us to have overregulation, and we will never have enough laws to stop those companies from putting the lives of their workers in jeopardy."
Added Wendy Black, whose husband, Dale, died alongside Jensen: "It wasn't money we were after. It was for somebody to be held accountable for [the disaster]. They should all have to answer to someone, and that includes MSHA."
In its official disaster investigation report, released in July 2008, MSHA assessed fines of $1.64 million against Murray Energy's two Utah subsidiaries, Genwal Resources and Andalex Resources, for 20 mine-safety violations. MSHA also fined Agapito Associates, Inc., $220,000 for allegedly devising a faulty mine plan at Crandall Canyon.
Legal proceedings over the report's citations were put on hold for almost four years while the U.S. Attorney's Office conducted a criminal probe into the disaster. That case ended in a March settlement in which the company pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to two misdemeanors for willfully violating mine-safety laws. It paid the maximum $500,000 fine.
In this settlement, MSHA executive Joe Main said Murray Energy accepted 17 of the 20 citations issued by the disaster-investigation team.
That included three "flagrant" violations, including two that resulted in the criminal misdemeanors.
The first stemmed from the company's failure to quickly report a March 10, 2007, implosion that did not injure anyone but stopped mining in a Crandall Canyon section close to where the fatalities occurred five months later.
Count two involved evidence that, three days before the deadly collapse, the company mined a "barrier pillar" of coal left behind to hold up the mine roof. MSHA had prohibited mining in that pillar.
The third flagrant violation involved the company's failure to revise its roof control plan after a coal outburst Aug. 3, when the barrier pillar was being mined.
Four other admitted violations were designated as having contributed to the disaster. The three citations that were dropped would have been difficult to prove, said Labor Department Solicitor Patricia Smith, because MSHA's key witness on those items would have been the deceased Black.
All in all, she added, Murray Energy "acknowledged responsibility for the failures that led to the tragedy at Crandall Canyon. These failures resulted in the needless deaths of nine members of the mining community."
The settlement also provides for Murray Energy to pay an additional $200,649 in fines to resolve disputed violations at its other Utah coal mines, West Ridge and Lila Canyon in Carbon County.
Main said the fine against Agapito Associates has not been resolved and is proceeding to litigation.
The Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission still must approve the settlement.
Crandall Canyon mine victims
Died in the Aug. 6, 2007 collapse
Killed 10 days later in rescue effort
Gary Jensen, MSHA inspector
Top mining fines in U.S.
$10.8 million • Alpha Natural Resources' payment after blast at Upper Big Branch (W.Va.) mine, where 29 miners died April 5, 2010.
$1.7M • Massey Energy's payment after fire in Aracoma (W.Va.) mine, where two miners died in 2006.
$949,351 • Paid by Murray Energy in Crandall Canyon deal.