A federal prosecutor looking into the collapse of a Utah mine said the operator was struggling to meet production quotas and was aggressively taking the last of the coal inside a slowly crumbling mountain -- all "recipes for a disaster."
U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman said that even if he finds evidence of negligence at Crandall Canyon, it might not be enough to warrant criminal charges -- and he wasn't inclined to prosecute "bad business" practices, either. He said he was still looking deeper for evidence that could be brought before a grand jury.
The possible evidence includes allegations by federal regulators -- vigorously denied by the company -- that mine managers misrepresented early warning signs of danger at the central Utah mine, which collapsed in a spectacular instant on Aug. 6, 2007, trapping six miners who remain entombed there. Another three rescuers were killed by a cave-in 10 days later.
Tolman, who opened an investigation 10 months ago on a complaint from Rep. George Miller, D-California, said in a recent interview he was troubled by an "awful combination" of events that made for a "perfect" disaster, but "when you are trying to find whether or not there is criminal intent in the day-to-day operation of a mining company, it's a Herculean task."
Tolman said, "That's what makes it a very difficult thing because emotions are very high, and you have victims of a tragedy that are crying out for justice."
The mine's corporate owner, instead of responding to Tolman's specific remarks, issued a statement to The Associated Press.
"We truly believed the mine was safe -- a belief that was shared by MSHA itself, by expert mining consultants and by our own experienced miners. Still, this tragedy could not be averted," said Kevin Anderson, a Salt Lake City lawyer for Murray Energy Corp. affiliate Genwal Resources Inc., the co-owner and operator of the Crandall Canyon mine.
MSHA stands for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
"We continue to cooperate fully with the U.S. Attorney's Office. We are confident that upon completion of their review, they will conclude there was no criminal intent in this terrible event."
Tolman said he was stunned by the scale of the disaster.
"Keep in mind you're under the deepest cover, the deepest part of the mine, and in a part of the mine that has already been mined. The barriers you're dealing with are left for specific purposes of structural support, and anytime you're doing retreat mining, you have elevated the nature of the risk. So, it really was a perfect storm," he said.
Satellite radar images indicate that a 69-acre section of the mine caved in -- the equivalent of 63 football fields without the end zones. For sheer destruction, federal regulators found no other mining disaster in the last 50 years to compare to it.
Tolman agreed to an interview to answer what was taking the investigation so long -- he said it took several months for his office to compile mining documents into a searchable database. He said the review, headed full-time by two of his criminal chiefs and a lawyer with a technical background, would take several more months.
In a new disclosure, Tolman said the mine operator needed Crandall Canyon's "very good coal" to mix with inferior coal from other company mines and fulfill contracts. Yet Crandall Canyon, plagued by cave-ins and seismic jolts that damaged equipment and bracing, kept coming up short on production quotas, he said.
"At what point does greed become criminal behavior?" asked Tolman. "It's a tough decision but one we're very prepared to make."
Mining conditions varied from "a little more challenging" to "significantly worse" as equipment and men moved under the mountain's deepest cover, according to documents that have already been released. In February 2006, for instance, a cave-in cost the mine four days of production, the log said. Crandall Canyon was coming up "short for the month." Another report took measure of a shrinking stockpile of coal outside the mine.
Tolman said that some questions about the mining company's response to business pressures were better left to civil lawsuits.
Those lawsuits contend that Crandall Canyon was taking down coal pillars that should have been left standing to support the mine.
"We attribute that to greed or avarice or putting profits over safety. That's still our position," said Ed Havas, a Salt Lake City lawyer who represents family members of the six entombed miners and two of the rescuers killed while furiously digging toward the trapped miners. "The lines of communication remain open and we plan to continue talking."
A second lawsuit was filed on behalf of Gary Jensen, a Mine Safety and Health Administration accident investigator who died in the rescue attempt. The third lawsuit is on behalf of Lester Day, an MSHA employee who was injured during that attempt.
The lawsuits target affiliates of Pepper Pike, Ohio-based Murray Energy; mine co-owner Intermountain Power Agency; the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which has an ownership stake in Intermountain Power Agency and oversaw operations at the mine; and Grand Junction, Colo.-based mining consultant Agapito Associates Inc.
Here is the text of the statement from a corporate owner of the Crandall Canyon mine in response to questions from The Associated Press about the U.S. attorney's continuing investigation into the August 2007 disaster.
The statement carries the name of Kevin Anderson, a Salt Lake City lawyer for Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp. affiliate Genwal Resources Inc., the co-owner and operator of the Crandall Canyon mine:
"Last year, we opened a dialogue with the U.S. Attorney's Office to present our information and perspective in the ongoing investigation of the Crandall Canyon tragedy. The events at Crandall Canyon mine were extraordinary and unprecedented. Given the complexities of the geology, mining and the interpretations of numerous experts, it is not surprising that a full picture of what happened there has yet to emerge. Accordingly, we do not intend to address this matter publicly.
"As we have stated previously, we truly believed the mine was safe -- a belief that was shared by MSHA itself, by expert mining consultants and by our own experienced miners. Still, this tragedy could not be averted. It took loved ones, co-workers and friends and words continue to be inadequate for describing this profound loss.
"We continue to cooperate fully with the U.S. Attorney's Office. We are confident that upon completion of their review, they will conclude there was no criminal intent in this terrible event. "