Engineers pay $100,000 for Utah mine collapse

AP News
Posted: Sep 18, 2013 7:47 PM

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — An engineering firm held partly responsible for a Utah mine collapse that killed nine people in 2007 will pay a $100,000 penalty for a "high-negligence violation" of safety standards that contributed to the disaster, federal regulators announced Wednesday.

For the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the settlement with Agapito Associates Inc. ends the protracted saga surrounding the cave-ins at Crandall Canyon that killed nine miners and rescuers.

The operator of the mine, Genwal Resources Inc., paid a $949,000 civil settlement to federal regulators for safety violations about a year ago. Months earlier, Genwal had pleaded guilty in federal court in Salt Lake City to a pair of misdemeanors for violating safety standards. It was fined $500,000.

Regulators say Genwal thinned city block-size coal barriers that should have been left standing to keep the mine from collapsing under the weight of a 10,800-foot mountain.

The Grand Junction, Colo.-based Agapito was cited for "high negligence" for approving the "flawed" mining plan. No criminal charges were ever brought against Agapito, but it came under criticism in reports ordered by regulators.

In one case, a panel of experts determined, Agapito miscalculated depth covers that are fundamental to safety equations at underground mines. In another, the firm overstated the strength of support pillars by a factor of two.

Agapito officials said in court papers and interviews with The Associated Press on Wednesday that they offered sound advice to Genwal but were ignored by the mining company and regulators.

"We spent a lot of money, and there was no end in sight to this," Agapito President and Chairman Michael P. Hardy said Wednesday of the firm's battle with regulators. "So we agreed to a settlement."

MSHA chief Joe Main said a series of investigations into the Crandall Canyon disaster led to regulatory changes that improved the safety of coal mining across the country.

"That's one of the things that really came out of this," Main said.

U.S. coal mines went five years after the Utah disaster without a single fatality related to retreat mining, said Kevin Stricklin, administer of coal mine safety for MSHA.

"When something this bad happens, everybody looks to improve," Stricklin said. "We are scrutinizing plans closer. We run our own calculations" and "see if our engineers agree to retreat mining," which involves grabbing the coal of supporting pillars while backing out of an underground mine. The American Society of Safety Engineers says the process requires precise planning and sequencing to ensure roof stability.

From the start, Murray Energy Corp. chief Bob Murray insisted that the cave-in at Crandall Canyon was triggered by a natural earthquake, and that no retreat mining was taking place. Federal officials disagreed.

Ohio-based Murray Energy owns Genwal Resources Inc. through a series of subsidiaries.

The collapse Aug. 6, 2007, was so powerful it registered as a 3.9-magnitude quake, flattening a section of the mine as large as 63 football fields. It entombed six miners nearly a half-mile underground. Their bodies were never recovered. Another cave-in 10 days later killed two rescuers and a federal inspector trying to tunnel their way to the trapped miners.

The victims' families will "feel bad for the rest of their lives," Main said. "What we have to do is take action for safety, and prevent it from recurring."

In a lengthy report issued a year after the collapse, MSHA said the Crandall Canyon was "destined to fail" because of instability problems. But MSHA itself was lambasted by its parent agency, the Department of Labor, for lax oversight and its handling of the fatal rescue effort. Six people on the rescue team were grievously injured, in addition to the three who were killed.

The civil penalties paid by Genwal and Agapito end up at the U.S. Treasury, officials said.