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Newly released meeting minutes show that, in the months before the Crandall Canyon mine disaster, its co-owners were dealing with serious structural problems, higher-than-expected costs and subpar coal, but were hopeful that plans approved by federal regulators would get things back on track.
Those plans hinged on extracting nearly all of the coal from the south barrier pillar, the 450-foot-thick coal wall that helped support the roof of the mine, where three months later the walls collapsed, entombing six miners. Three other men were killed in the subsequent rescue effort.
The minutes show that Robert Murray, co-owner of the mine, knew of the severe mine "bounce" on March 10 that forced the mine to shut down and reposition its operations. Murray, who led the rescue effort in August, said at that time he had no knowledge of the bounce.
The Salt Lake Tribune obtained minutes of four meetings in South Jordan between the mine's co-owners through an open-records request with the Los Angeles Division of Water and Power, a partner in Intermountain Power Agency (IPA), a co-owner of the mine.
Murray went to court to block the release of the records and pursued the case to the California Supreme Court, arguing the documents contained proprietary information. At each level, the courts rejected the argument and the high court refused a stay last week, allowing the city to release the heavily redacted records Tuesday.
The meeting minutes contain the disruption caused in March by a severe mine "bounce," in which the pressure created by the mountain bearing down on the coal pillars supporting the mine caused coal to explode from the roof and walls.
"The mine started taking bounces and had to retreat the equipment very quickly. There were no injuries and all equipment was recovered out of the area," Crandall Canyon's operator, UtahAmerican Energy, informed IPA officials in a March 21 meeting.
But the company had to abandon mining in that section. The area they relocated to, at considerable cost, was producing a lower-quality coal with higher ash content, the records show.
That was problematic, because the company relied on getting clean, high-quality coal out of Crandall Canyon that it could mix with higher-ash coal from the company's other nearby mines, Tower and West Ridge, to satisfy its contract with IPA.
"When we move to the south side of West Mains in about three weeks, production should pick up, and the ash should decrease," UtahAmerican officials said.
That moved them back into the same general area where problems were encountered in March.
"We have increased the pillar size in the south panel development to try to prevent bouncing problems in the future," the company said.
There were no questions raised, according to the minutes, about the safety of going back into the south barrier pillar, but company officials reported that they had worked out a contingency plan with the Mine Safety and Health Administration that would still allow the company to recover some of the coal if they ran into problems with bounces. A federal MSHA spokesman declined to comment on the minutes, citing the agency's ongoing investigation of the disaster.
The six miners killed in the collapse in August were working about 900 feet to the south of the location where the bounces in March drove the company out.
Murray was present at the March 21 meeting when the earlier bounce was discussed and company officials described the problems encountered while carving away pillars in the north side of the main tunnels.
"The mine lost the ability to walk the aircourse on the north side to the back of the panel, and we could no longer mine the north side of the mains," the minutes said.
The records show Murray participated in the meeting by phone, noting that he "dropped out" only after the discussion about the bounce's impact.
The March event was never officially reported to MSHA, as required by law.
When The Tribune asked Murray about the March bounce a week after the August collapse, he said, "It's the first time I've heard of this." Murray blamed the collapse on an earthquake, a viewpoint discredited by scientists, and insisted there was no retreat mining in Crandall Canyon - a statement also refuted by the meeting minutes.
The Tribune sought an explanation from Murray Energy Corp. for a series of questions raised by the meeting minutes. "After further review, please be advised that we have no comment whatsoever," Rob Murray, the son of the company president, replied.
Attorneys for Murray Energy have also sought to block the release of other records relating to the Crandall Canyon mine requested from IPA under Utah's open-records act. The agency rejected Murray's challenge last month, but the company has an opportunity to appeal to the state records board or to state court.
A broad federal mine-safety bill that was crafted partially in response to the Crandall Canyon mine is moving through Congress, but the Bush administration has threatened a veto. And in past months, congressional committees have held hearings on the disaster and plan more this year.
* MIKE GORRELL contributed to this report.