The Crandall Canyon mine disaster

The 2007 Crandall Canyon coal mine disaster was a tragic case of something bad getting worse, three rescuers dying 10 days into a search for six miners fatally entombed by a massive collapse. It began Aug. 6, 2007 when the walls imploded in the Emery County mine, 15 miles northwest of Huntington in eastern Utah. The ground failure at 2:48 a.m. trapped a crew of six miners — Don Erickson, Manuel Sanchez, Kerry Allred, Juan Carlos Payan, Luis Hernandez and Brandon Phillips — cutting coal in the South Barrier Pillar of the West Mains section. They were about three miles from the surface.

A University of Utah Seismograph Stations report later said the catastrophic collapse, magnitude 3.9, involved 50 acres of the underground workings and was caused by the mining operation, not an earthquake as mine co-owner Robert Murray declared. “We’re as sure as we can be,” said Jim Pechmann, lead author and a U. professor of geology and geophysics.

The mining company, Murray Energy Corp., subsidiary Genwal Resources Inc., began a rescue operation under the auspices of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Crews bored holes an average of 1,767 feet from the mountain top to determine if any crew members survived, while rescuers cut their way back through a rubble-clogged tunnel. The underground effort ended Aug. 16, 2007, when a 6:38 p.m. outburst of the mine’s walls killed three rescuers — Dale Black, Brandon Kimber and MSHA inspector Gary Jensen.

Six others were injured — Randy Bouldin, Lester Day, Carl Gressman, Casey Metcalf, Jeff Tripp and MSHA inspector Frank Markosek. “There was a consensus that the plan we had developed and implemented provided the maximum safety for the workers that we knew to be available,” said MSHA Director Richard Stickler. “Obviously, it was not adequate.”After a seventh bore hole convinced organizers there was no chance the six missing miners were alive, the rescue effort was terminated Aug. 31, 2007. “It’s a hard and bitter pill for our families, and there were quite a few tears shed,” said Colin King, an attorney for the missing miners’ families.

A half dozen disaster investigations were launched. On Aug. 30, 2007, MSHA selected Richard Gates, a district manager from Birmingham, Ala., to conduct the agency’s official probe into the cause of the mine collapse. That same day, U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao appointed two retired MSHA officials, Earnest Teaster Jr. and Joseph Pavlovich, to evaluate the actions and decisions of MSHA personnel before the mine’s meltdown and during the rescue effort.

Separate probes were conducted by two congressional panels — the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the House Education and Labor Committee — while a third, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education and Related Agencies, held one hearing and subpoenaed Murray for another, which was postponed. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. also set up the Utah Mine Safety Commission to study the state’s role in mine safety, accident prevention and accident response. Its report prompted the 2008 Utah Legislature to create a state Office of Coal Mine Safety.

The Senate committee report, released March 6, 2008, accused Murray Energy of ignoring warning signs of danger and doing unauthorized mining, criticized MSHA for lax enforcement and called for a Justice Department investigation. “MSHA missed significant flaws in [the company’s engineering] analysis, dismissed critical findings by MSHA’s own engineer and did not submit the plans — which proposed one of the most hazardous mining operations ever intended — for review by MSHA’s expert technical staff,” said the report. The company responded with “shock and outrage.. . . This sensational and irresponsible report makes slanderous allegations against innocent individuals.”

On May 8, 2008, the House committee asked the U.S. Attorney for Utah to conduct a criminal investigation of Laine Adair, general manager of Murray Energy’s Utah operations, alleging he “willfully misled” MSHA inspectors about the severity of earlier ground problems at Crandall Canyon. The company stood behind Adair, characterized as having “an impeccable reputation” through 34 years in the industry. Ed Havas, an attorney for a half dozen victims’ families, said “There were lots and lots of red flags and signals what was going on should not have been happening . . . It compounds the tragedy to see how foreseeable and how completely avoidable it was.”

In between these reports, the Labor Department Inspector General reported March 31, 2008 that MSHA was “negligent” in protecting underground miners at Crandall Canyon and also cited deficiencies in the agency’s local, regional and national operations. “MSHA’s actions and inactions, taken as a whole, lead us to conclude that MSHA lacked care and attention in fulfilling its responsibilities to protect miners,” wrote Inspector General Elliot Lewis.

MSHA released its official report July 24, 2008. It said the retreat mining plan at Crandall Canyon was so poorly engineered that the mine was “destined to fail.” MSHA fined operator, Genwal Resources Inc., and the company’s engineering firm, Agapito Associates Inc., a total of $1.85 million for violations that directly contributed to the deaths of the six miners.

Based on its report, MSHA acknowledged Sept. 4, 2008 that it had asked the U.S. Attorney to conduct a criminal investigation. Murray Energy disputed the findings — “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” — and cited numerous criticisms of MSHA in the Independent Review Team report by Pavlovich and Teaster, also released July 24, 2008.

Civil litigation is proceeding. On April 1, 2008 heirs of the six miners fatally trapped Aug. 6 and two rescuers injured 10 days later filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the mine’s owners, operators and consultants, seeking unspecified damages. That lawsuit was followed by two others. Together, the suits involve families of eight of the nine fatalities and five of the six injured Aug. 16.

Two monuments have been erected to honor disaster victims. The first, dedicated on the first anniversary of the initial implosion, was built by Murray Energy in a grotto a few hundred yards up canyon from the mine entrance. The second, unveiled Sept. 14, 2008, on the outskirts of Huntington, featured sculptor Karen Joe Templeton’s bas relief faces of the nine victims on a curved wall. Funding for this memorial came largely from the governor and his father, Jon Huntsman Sr., who together contributed $125,000.


By Mike Gorrell

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