Loved ones of Crandall Canyon mine disaster victims reacted with indignation and frustration Friday as a four-year criminal probe into the catastrophic 2007 collapse ended with only minor charges.
"There's really not much justice, even though they have to pay whatever amount of money they have to pay," said Frank Allred, whose brother Kerry was one of nine men who died in a pair of implosions at the Emery County coal mine in August 2007.
Allred was referring to U.S. Attorney for Utah David Barlow's announcement that a settlement was reached in which Crandall Canyon's co-owner and operator, Genwal Resources, Inc., will plead guilty to two misdemeanors for willfully violating safety laws in the mine and will pay the maximum fine of $500,000.
Neither violation contributed directly to the initial collapse of the mine's walls on Aug. 6, burying a six-member crew that included Kerry Allred (three rescuers died and six more were injured in a second implosion 10 days later).
Instead, the first criminal count stemmed from the company's failure to quickly report a devastating March 10, 2007, implosion that did not injure anyone but stopped mining in a section relatively close to where the fatalities occurred five months later.
The second count involved evidence that, just three days before the fatal collapse, the company mined into a "barrier pillar" of coal left behind to hold up the mine roof. Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) regulators had specifically prohibited mining of that pillar.
Barlow said that after four years of investigation, these were the transgressions his prosecutors could prove "beyond a reasonable doubt."
But in terms of the deadly collapse, which seismographs measured as a magnitude 3.9 earthquake, he added that "insufficient evidence" existed that could meet the burden of proof for criminal charges against individuals or corporate entities beyond Genwal Resources.
That would include mine general manager Laine Adair, who was singled out in a criminal investigation request by the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee, and Robert Murray, whose Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp. is the parent company of Genwal Resources. Murray Energy also has two other subsidiaries that operate coal mines in nearby Carbon County.
The settlement, which remains to be approved Wednesday by U.S. District Judge David Sam, stipulates that no charges will be filed against any other individuals or companies.
"This is the end of the criminal investigation," Barlow said.
Adair's attorney, Gregory Poe, declined comment Friday.
A statement from Genwal Resources said "the agreement reflects the lack of evidence that any conduct by the company caused the accidents of Aug. 6 or 16, 2007. Genwal has always maintained that its plan for mining the Crandall Canyon Mine was safe a belief that was shared by MSHA (which approved the plan) and the mine engineering firm on which Genwal relied."
Several relatives of the dead miners were angry and deflated but not horribly surprised at the outcome.
They were particularly displeased that Murray, who offended the victims' family members so badly during the rescue effort that then-Emery County Sheriff Lamar Guymon had to keep him out of daily briefings, escaped unscathed.
"We kind of figured something like that would happen," said Price resident Lucille Erickson, whose son Don was one of the six buried in the first implosion. "[Murray] will get his rewards in the next world."
Added her husband, Erick: "I figured they'd slap [Murray's] hands and turn him loose. We just have to live with it and forget it."
Cesar Sanchez, whose brother Manuel was with Erickson, said he was not surprised either because Murray "can buy anything and anybody. â¦ He just paid somebody to get it over with."
For Frank Allred, the settlement reflected the whole nature of the disaster, with family members repeatedly seeing their hopes dashed, first by the futility of the rescue operation, now in the search for justice.
"I would like to see something happen to Murray," Allred said. "He's an arrogant, egotistical shhead. I would have liked to have seen more drastic measures taken to make sure the people who were involved, or helped cause this, were held responsible."
Lola Jensen lost her husband, MSHA inspector Gary Jensen, in the rescue effort. "Disappointment," she said with an air of resignation in describing her reaction to the charges. "We were a little hopeful that some justice would be served, especially when we waited this long. There's not much we can say. I guess it's over."
The news left Gayle McDonald in despair. "My thoughts are so negative now," said the sister of fatally injured rescuer Dale Black. "I can't believe what the [U.S. Attorney] did. We are emotional and at a loss for words. I wish that they had not done anything. It would have been better than this."
Added Black's widow, Wendy: "Did I expect any more? No. It was all just a song and dance to make it look like they were doing something. This is just a slap in everyone's faces."
Although Crandall Canyon was a non-union mine, Mike Dalpiaz of the United Mine Workers of America called the settlement an affront to all miners and a "disgrace to justice â¦ [The Justice Department] just told those families their loved one who is dead is worth just a few bucks."
The end of the criminal investigation does not mean the Crandall Canyon case is over.
MSHA's official disaster probe fined Genwal $1.64 million for a series of mine-safety violations primarily for inadequately designing the mine, weakening its structure more by mining coal that was off-limits and withholding information about earlier collapses that would have signaled potential danger to MSHA.
The company's engineering contractor, Agapito Associates, was fined an additional $220,000.
Those citations have been on hold pending the outcome of the U.S. Attorney's probe.
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Fine: $250,000 • Murray Energy Corp. subsidiary Genwal Resources Inc. willfully violated a mandatory health and safety standard by failing to report a March 10, 2007, implosion within 15 minutes of the accident.
Fine: $250,000 • Genwal also violated its MSHA-approved roof control plan by cutting coal Aug. 3, 2007, in a "barrier pillar of coal" purposely left behind to shore up the mine's roof.
What's next? • A U.S. District Court judge is scheduled to review the company's guilty plea and enact sentencing Wednesday at 3 p.m.
Source: U.S. attorney for Utah
Another Murray Energy subsidiary, UtahAmerican Energy Inc. "temporarily" laid off about half of its 320 employees Thursday at the West Ridge and Lila Canyon mines in Carbon County. A company statement said adverse underground mining conditions since October had reduced production, forcing the company to move major mining machinery to a different location. That move is expected to take three weeks. Employees then will return to work, it added.