The general manager and possibly other senior staff at the Crandall Canyon Mine near Huntington, Utah, where nine miners died in August 2007, hid information from federal mining officials that could have prevented the disaster and should face criminal charges, according to a congressional investigation the results of which were released yesterday.
The report also said that the mining company should never have submitted a request to remove coal from the section of mine where the collapse occurred, and that federal mining officials should not have approved the proposal, because of foreseeable dangers.
The congressional committee conducting the investigation sent a referral letter late last month to the Department of Justice asking the department to investigate whether the mine manager, Laine W. Adair, on his own or in conspiracy with others from the mining company, willfully concealed facts or made intentionally false statements to federal mining investigators about the condition of the mine before the August disaster.
On Aug. 6, roof supports in a section of the mine gave way in a major collapse that registered a magnitude of 3.9 and left six miners fatally entombed. Ten days later, three more miners who were working as rescuers died after more tunnels fell.
The deaths were avoidable, the 150-page report said, because five months before the August disaster in the north section of the mine, a similar collapse had occurred in a southern section, offering clear "red flags" indicating that the mine was unstable.
Rather than informing federal mining officials about the March collapse, the report said, the mine operator cleaned up the site and went on with work in a nearby 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," said Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who is chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, which conducted the investigation.
Aside from the instability indicated by the March collapse, known as a bump or bounce, the report said that notes from 2004 from the federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns the land where Crandall Canyon is located and leased it to the mine operator, clearly indicated that the mine had become unsafe and that pillars had begun deteriorating.
"It is quite possible that, had Mine Safety and Health Administration known the full severity of the March bump, MSHA would not have approved the subsequent development and retreat mining of the South Barrier," the report said.
This conclusion about the cause of the disaster contradicts Robert E. Murray, the chief executive of the Murray Energy Corp., which owns and operates the mine. Murray has adamantly insisted that the initial fatalities were not foreseeable because the collapse was caused by an earthquake.
Federal mining officials, who have publicly expressed skepticism that an earthquake caused the collapse, are due to release their own report in June.
Murray Energy did not respond to a request for comment on the congressional report. But a lawyer for relatives of the dead miners expressed outrage.
"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 bounce," said Colin King, a lawyer in Salt Lake City. "Instead the company continued with its same plan to pull out all the coal because of their greed, and that makes their conduct worse than negligent."
He said the families filed a lawsuit against the company last month. At the time of the disaster, the mining company was conducting retreat mining, a risky type of extraction that requires miners to remove coal from the very pillars that hold up the tunnels, allowing controlled roof collapses. Aside from missing clear warnings, mine operators seemed to have tried to conceal their own culpability, the report said.
Deposed by the committee, one federal mining official, Allyn Davis, who inspected photographs of the mine after the March bump, said that the images differed significantly from the description of the event given to him by Adair, the mine manager.
"The photos that I saw and the description I got from Laine Adair don't match," said Davis, according to a criminal referral letter sent by the committee to the Department of Justice asking for further investigation.
In a letter to the committee, Adair's lawyer wrote, "Mr. Adair has earned an impeccable reputation in the mining industry as a hard-working, straightforward person devoted above all to the safety of miners and fairness in his treatment of others."
The congressional investigation, however, found that rather than informing officials at the Mine Safety and Health Administration of the March bump immediately after it occurred, Crandall Canyon officials contacted officials at the Bureau of Land Management.
"This is curious," said Miller, the committee chairman. "While the Mine Safety and Health Administration is responsible for safety, Bureau of Land Management is responsible for ensuring a profit. The mine operator called Bureau of Land Management."
The congressional committee, which began its inquiry within weeks of the disaster, hired Norwest Corp., an engineering firm, to review the mine and its retreat mining plans. The committee 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 investigation, 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 Murray, invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to cooperate.
The six miners who were killed in the Aug. 6 collapse remain entombed at the site.