Criminal cover-up in deadly Utah mine blasts

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) formally asked the Justice Department, in an April 29 letter attached to the report, to investigate the two blasts at the mine. The first trapped and killed six miners and the second killed three rescuers, including a Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) inspector.

The letter from Miller urges the Justice Department to determine whether the mine manager, Laine W. Adair, on his own or in collusion with the owner, Murray Energy Corp., made intentionally false statements to government officials about the condition of the mine before the August disaster. The report issued by Miller’s committee says the false statements were indeed made by company reps.

On Aug. 6, roof supports in a section of the mine gave way in a disaster that registered 3.9 on the Richter scale, entombing the first six miners who died. The rescuers died 10 days later when more tunnels collapsed.

The congressional report called the deaths avoidable because five months earlier in another section of the mine another collapse had occurred, offering “clear red flags” that the mine was unstable. Rather than inform federal mining officials about the March collapse, the mine operators cleaned up the site and went on with work in a close-by section.

“Even after the near-disaster in March, the company forged ahead with plans to do the same kind of retreat mining in the South Barrier that it had done, with nearly catastrophic consequences, in the North Barrier,” Miller declared.

To make matters worse, the report noted that earlier documents prepared by the federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns the land on which the mine is located, had indicated that the mine was unsafe due to deteriorating coal pillars holding up sections of its roof.

Retreat mining occurs when after a mine is excavated, miners extract coal from pillars that have been left intact to hold up the mine’s ceiling, backing out of the mine as they remove the remaining coal.

The findings contradict Robert Murray, the chief executive of the Murray Energy Corp. He has continued to insist that the initial deaths were not foreseeable because the collapse was caused by an “earthquake” rather than mining operations.Murray is also contradicted by seismologists at the University of Utah who have insisted that no earthquake occurred.

When reached by phone, relatives of the dead miners would not discuss the matter. They filed a lawsuit against the company last month. Colin King, a lawyer in Salt Lake City representing them, called the findings in the report “troubling.”

“The nine miners who died would all be alive today if Murray Energy had heeded the clear warning signs that were there to see after the March disaster,” said King, adding, “Instead the company continued with their same plan to pull out the coal because of their greed and that makes their conduct worse than negligent. It is pro-actively criminal.”

All mine company representatives who were called to testify before the Congressional Committee, including Murray, refused to answer questions and, citing their Fifth Amendment rights, refused to cooperate with the committee in any other way.

At his press conference releasing the report, Miller blasted MSHA for its lack of vigilance. He accused the federal agency of uncritically approving the company’s retreat mining plan “despite clear evidence of prior problems at Crandall Canyon and despite having conducted no inspections while the retreat mining was going on.”

He also noted that intensive computer analysis of conditions in the mine, carried out by consultants hired by the Congressional committee, revealed that “the company’s decision to pull down more pillars caused remaining pillars to burst and the explosions to occur.”

Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, who has cited Crandall Canyon as a reason for the mine safety legislation approved by Miller’s committee earlier this year, hailed the report. He said it proved, again, the union’s assertion that the fatal blasts should never have occurred.

“Nine miners are dead today that should not be,” Roberts declared, adding, “Family members have wept and been left inconsolable. Wives, parents and children are without husbands, sons and fathers. Our nation and its leaders can no longer watch these tragedies unfold, wring our hands and say, ‘How horrible,’ and then stand aside and do little to prevent them.”

PAI contributed to this story

jwojcik@pww.org