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U.S. District Judge David Sam said Wednesday he felt "outrage" that a Murray Energy Corp. subsidiary will pay only $500,000 to settle a criminal case stemming from the 2007 Crandall Canyon mine disaster that claimed the lives of nine Utahns.
But he accepted the argument from the U.S. attorney for Utah that two misdemeanor counts of violating mine safety laws were the most serious charges that could be brought against the company, given the way the law is written.
In approving a settlement in the 4-year-old case, Sam imposed the maximum fine possible on Murray Energy subsidiary Genwal Resources Inc. But the penalties did nothing to ease the bitterness felt by victims' family members, who believe the parent company and its owner, Robert Murray, got off easy and considered him combative to the end.
The victims' survivors were particularly incensed by a statement issued by Murray Energy after the settlement was announced Friday. That statement indicated the company had been vindicated, "reflect[ing] the lack of evidence that any conduct by the company caused the accidents of Aug. 6 or 16."
On Aug. 6, 2007, a six-man crew was buried deep in the Emery County mine when its walls imploded while they were working. Ten days later, a second implosion killed three rescuers and injured six others, forever ending the underground search for the missing miners.
Ed Havas, a Salt Lake City attorney who helped represent many victims' relatives in a wrongful death and injury lawsuit resolved in 2009, told Sam the company's denial of responsibility was "hurtful to the families. Genwal bypassed an opportunity to say 'sorry,' which should have been said long ago."
Kristin Kimber Cox, whose ex-husband, Brandon, was one of the three rescuers killed, said Wednesday that an apology "would be a sense of acknowledgement [of responsibility]. It wouldn't make the pain go away, but at least it would show that this man [Murray] is semi-remorseful."
Stewart Walz, a prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said the public has a right to believe that "serious consequences demand more serious charges," but that the evidence was insufficient to support additional criminal allegations that could be proven at trial.
The judge said: "My initial take is outrage at the minuscule amount of the penalty provided by the federal statute." He said he reviewed the options available to prosecutors if he rejected the plea deal, but concluded that course of action only would prolong the "sorrow and grief" without any better results.
"I'm satisfied the U.S. attorney did a very thorough and complete review as can be conducted," Sam said.
Michael McKown, Murray Energy's senior vice president and corporate counsel, attended the sentencing but declined comment.
A criminal case against a subsidiary of Murray Energy Corp. in the deaths of nine Utahns came to an end Wednesday. The company's penalties:
$250,000 fine for failing to file a timely report on a massive collapse of the mine's walls on March 10, 2007.
$250,000 fine for violating the mine's roof control plan on Aug. 3, three days before the fatal collapse, and cutting coal from a "barrier pillar" that was expressly off limits.
Source • U.S. Attorney's Office