It appears that the general manager and possibly other senior staff members at the Crandall Canyon Mine near Huntington, Utah, where nine miners died last August, withheld information from federal officials that could have prevented the disaster. If that is true they should face a criminal inquiry. Rep. George Miller, who is the chairman of a Congressional investigation, accused the company of concealing the extent of an earlier collapse in the mine that involved the same high-risk technique, retreat mining, that was being used when the disaster began. Rep. Miller said that if federal mine officials had known the extent of that earlier collapse, they would not have allowed the company to continue using the method. Retreat mining is where miners remove coal from the pillars that hold up the tunnels. Rep. Miller had sent a referral letter late last month to the Department of Justice asking an investigation of whether the mine’s manager, Laine W. Adair, on his own or in conspiracy with others in the company, concealed facts or made false statements to federal investigators about the condition of the mine before the disaster.
On August 6th, the pillars that supported the roof in a section of the mine gave way in a major collapse that left six miners fatally entombed. Ten days later, three miners who were working as rescuers died after more tunnels fell. Rep. Miller believes the deaths were avoidable. He cited the investigation’s findings that in March, five months before the disaster in the south section of the mine, a similar collapse had occurred in a northern section. This should have been a clear “red flag” that the mine was unstable. Rather than informing the proper federal mining officials about the true extent of the March collapse, the investigation by the House Committee on Education and Labor found that the mine operator cleaned up the site and went on with work in a nearby section. The company has maintained that the collapse was caused by an earthquake. Rep. Miller wrote in a memorandum:
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.
A similar investigation by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, led by Senator Ted Kennedy, has also called for the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation. The Senate panel said it found evidence that Murray Energy was illegally mining the remnant barrier pillar just before the accident in August. Many mine safety advocates have criticized MSHA for not rigorously enforcing mine safety laws. In March, the agency’s inspector general said MSHA had been negligent in protecting the safety of workers at Crandall Canyon. Aside from the instability indicated by the March collapse, known as a bump or bounce, notes in 2004 from the federal Bureau of Land Management, which leased the Crandall Canyon site to Murray Energy, indicated that pillars had begun to deteriorate. The House panel’s investigation found that the March bump was a clear indicator of the likelihood of the August collapse.
The families have filed a lawsuit against the company. Aside from initially ignoring clear warnings, mine operators later seemed to have tried to play down the significance of those warnings, according to findings from the investigation. A federal mining official, Allyn Davis, who inspected photographs of the mine after the March bump, said the images differed significantly from the description of the event given to him by the mine manager. The House committee, which began its inquiry within weeks of the disaster, hired Norwest Corporation, an engineering firm, to review the mine and its retreat mining plans. The panel had to subpoena the safety agency to get about 300,000 pages of documents concerning the mine; it also received about 100,000 pages of documents from Murray Energy.
To conduct the inquiry, the committee was also given subpoena power to take depositions. All five employees of the companies associated with the mine who were called to testify, including Mr. Murray, invoked their Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination and refused to cooperate. Three current or former federal mining officials and one official from the Bureau of Land Management were also asked for depositions and they complied. Cecil Roberts, who is president of the United Mine Workers of America, said the Congressional report further indicated the need for a bill that was passed by the House in January, which hasn’t moved in the Senate. The measure would require more thorough review and monitoring of retreat mining plans. Sadly, the six miners who died after the August 6th collapse remain entombed at the site, which has to be very difficult for their families.
Source: New York Times
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