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Sixteen families stung by the deaths and injuries in the 2007 Crandall Canyon mine disaster have settled civil lawsuits against the company.
Terms are confidential, but it was described as the largest settlement in Utah mining history, exceeding the $22 million agreement reached with heirs of 27 miners killed in a 1984 fire at the Wilberg mine, which, like Crandall Canyon, was in Emery County.
Resolving the civil cases does not impact an ongoing criminal investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office. Brett Tolman, U.S. Attorney for Utah, said two weeks ago his office is still gathering information for the probe requested by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration's disaster investigation team and a U.S. congressman.
With aid from mediator Paul Felt, the civil talks proceeded quietly for a year between attorneys representing those killed or injured in two mine implosions, lawyers for the mine's owners and operator -- principally Murray Energy Corp. and its Utah subsidiaries, led by UtahAmerican Energy, Inc. -- and six insurance companies.
"It is in everyone's best interests to move forward," said Edward Havas, an attorney for the largest group of plaintiffs in the case, which featured three separate complaints. "It is time to focus on the future, even as we remember the past and time to concentrate on the living, even as we remember those who were lost."
UtahAmerican Energy attorney Kevin Anderson said the intense negotiations did "justice to the heroism of the rescuers."
In a joint statement, both sides said they hope the settlement will "bring a measure of closure and a sense of healing to the families of those who were lost or injured, current and former company employees, company management, the residents of Carbon and Emery counties, and the coal mining industry."
Complex factual and legal issues would have required long, costly litigation, the statement said, so all parties agreed a settlement was in their mutual best interests.
Six miners were killed Aug. 6, 2007, when the Crandall Canyon coal mine near Huntington buckled and collapsed under the pressure of nearly 2,000 feet of rock in the mountain above. The collapse registered 3.9 on seismic instruments and spanned an area equal to 10 city blocks.
The workers had been stripping the last coal out of the aging mine, carving into 400-foot-thick walls left behind to hold up the roof. It was an unheard-of strategy, federal mining investigators concluded, but one that MSHA repeatedly approved.
In the months before the Aug. 6 collapse, pressure on the pillars supporting the mine triggered "bounces," in which coal violently explodes from mine walls or causes the mine floor to heave and buckle. The company, said MSHA's post-disaster investigation, failed to notify regulators of those events, including one that occurred three days before the fatal collapse, burying a miner waist deep in coal.
After the initial collapse trapped the six miners, rescuers tunneled furiously through passageways clogged with coal to try to reach the men. But the mountain's continuing movement stymied their advance. Holes drilled from the surface also failed to find signs of life.
Then, on Aug. 16, 10 days after the initial implosion, three rescuers were killed and six others were injured when another bounce blasted them with rock and debris. The calamity ended underground rescue efforts. The mine has since been sealed permanently, leaving the original six victims inside.
MSHA's official disaster report said a poor mine design made the collapse inevitable. Last July, the agency cited engineering deficiencies and the company's failure to report the pre-disaster bounces in issuing record fines of $1.85 million against the mine operator and its engineering firm.
The company disputed the findings and is contesting the fines, saying MSHA failed to take factors into account.
Tony Oppegaard, a former MSHA official who represents injured miners and their families in lawsuits against coal companies, said the settlement was unusually quick -- suits stemming from the 2006 Sago and Darby mine disasters are still ongoing -- but it made sense in this case.
"Given the facts of the case, it was probably a prudent thing for the defense to do because they weren't going to win this trial," he said. "For the families, I'm assuming they got a nice settlement that will take care of [them], particularly the children. [And] it will avoid a tremendous amount of stress and bring closure."
Anderson said the company was eager to try the case.
"We had a story to tell," he said. "On the merits, we had a very compelling explanation of what happened. But we thought it was more important to see closure for our clients, for the employees and for the families, instead of trying to wreak havoc with contentious litigation."
Anderson had not discussed the settlement with mine owner Robert Murray, who had a stormy relationship with many victims' families during the lengthy rescue. "I would prefer not to single him out," he added. "The plaintiffs don't want to hear from or about him at this point."
Fred Silvester, a Salt Lake City attorney who represented the families of five men killed or injured in the rescue (including miner Brian Pritt, who later committed suicide), said the settlement was fair for the overall group, even if some of the dead miners' survivors may not be satisfied completely.
"There are always a few people who don't recognize that you don't get justice out of the civil justice system, you get resolution," he said. "Some people from the death cases said 'I just wanted someone to fry.' That's not uncommon. But as a general proposition, the majority of the plaintiffs are going to be relieved to get some security out of this and not have to have 5 to 6 more years of litigation."
The agreement to end three civil suits stemming from the August 2007 coal mine disaster involved:
16 groups of plaintiff families
7 defendants (five private companies and two public entities)
6 insurance companies