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Posted: 10:47 PM- Federal mine inspector Stephen Falk went into the Crandall Canyon mine earlier this year, and what he saw troubled him.
"I have been concerned about pulling pillars in this environment," Falk, a mine inspector for the Bureau of Land Management, wrote in February 2007, referring to the retreat mining going on in the mine - where huge blocks of coal left to support the roof are cut away, leaving the roof to fall in.
So far, things had gone well, he wrote, but work was nearing the deepest part of the mine, where pressures from the weight of the mountaintop above would be most intense, and he predicted that things "should get interesting soon."
He was back days later. A major seismic bounce on March 10 had rocked the mine, blasting coal from the pillars, damaging tunnels and supports and making it impossible for mining to continue, Falk wrote in an inspection report obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune.
It was a smaller version, and perhaps a harbinger, of the event that tore apart the mine on Aug. 6, trapping a half-dozen miners inside, and it was never officially reported to the Mine Safety and Health Administration as apparently required by federal rules. Late Friday, MSHA said the search for the miners had been suspended, and that the men were presumed dead.
Moreover, UtahAmerican Energy Inc., which operates Crandall Canyon, was retreat mining in the mine without notifying or receiving permission from the BLM, which manages the federal coal reserves.
"The first time we saw, in this office, what they were doing was after the event happened and this map was put before us and we saw how aggressive they were on retreat mining," said James Kohler, chief of the solid minerals branch at BLM's state office, as he stood over a mine map that covered a conference table.
"We never had it before us and I can say with certainty that our mining engineers would have had some questions about it," he said in a recent interview.
Kohler said Falk may have mistakenly believed the BLM had approved the mining plan. BLM is looking at how the miscommunication occurred.
MSHA has primary responsibility for mine safety; BLM reviews plans for mining on federal land to make sure the coal recovery is economical, safe and environmentally sound.
The mining plan approved by MSHA entailed carving into the two 450-foot thick barrier walls, which helped bear the strain of a mountain overhead. Areas on either side of the barrier walls had been mined out and allowed to collapse.
Only the barrier walls and thick coal pillars in the main tunnels kept the mine from falling in. But those pillars had eroded so badly under the strain, according to BLM documents, that the mine's previous owner, Andalex Resources, determined the coal could not be safely recovered and sealed the tunnels in 2004. Andalex also told the state that it did not believe the barriers between the mined out areas could be safely extracted.
Robert Murray of Murray Energy Corp., who bought the mine in August 2006, had a different strategy. With MSHA's approval, his company drove four new tunnels into the north barrier wall, leaving behind pillars to support the roof, then cutting away the pillars and allowing the roof to collapse behind.
It went as planned until March, when the pressure overwhelmed the supports and a major bump rocked the mine.
Falk's inspection a few days later showed the extent of the damage: Coal that burst from the pillars had filled the tunnels for nearly 200 feet. Walls built to help separate paths for air had either been knocked out or damaged for roughly 1,000 feet. Areas deeper in the mine couldn't be safely accessed at all.
Clearing out and rebuilding the tunnel network would be costly, Falk wrote. Murray's engineer, Tom Hurst, "said the risks are too great that this event will happen again . . . should they try pillar pulling again," and they were unsure they could retreat mine the south barrier, based on their experience in the north.
Federal regulations require a roof fall or coal outburst to be reported if it causes an injury, damages ventilation systems or requires work to be suspended for more than an hour. Despite the extensive damage, there is no report of the incident in MSHA's publicly available records or its internal database. According to MSHA, the last reported roof fall at Crandall Canyon was in 1998.
Dozens of calls have been made to company officials over more than a week seeking an explanation, but none have been returned.
Kevin Stricklin, MSHA administrator of coal mine safety, said this week that "we're aware" of the March bump, but said it didn't necessarily need to be reported.
"It depends on the size of the bump," he said. "It has to somehow affect ventilation or cause an injury and talking to the mine operators, it did neither of those."
The company told MSHA it was abandoning work in the north barriers because the pillars in the ventilation tunnels had deteriorated and become unsafe, but not because of damage from the March bounce, Stricklin said.
However, documents Hurst wrote shortly after the March event contradict that version. He told the BLM on March 12 that during the retreat mining "a bounce occurred, compromising the bleeder ventilation system. Ground conditions in the area prevent economic recovery of the remaining pillars in the North Barrier."
Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA official and Kentucky mine regulator, said the explanation for not reporting the March bump "doesn't pass the laugh test."
"MSHA is making an illogical argument to cover their failure to issue a citation," he said.
And the significance goes well beyond a paperwork issue, he said.
"What's important is you report accidents so the federal agency can investigate if they need to and interview miners and find out what's going on," Oppegard said. "It's to prevent future accidents."
Anne Lofaso, a law professor at the West Virginia University, said agencies are given broad latitude to interpret regulations, but that raises a greater question.
"Let's say that MSHA can come up with an interpretation where [the operator] didn't have to report. The bigger issue then is that the regulations don't work," she said. "Assuming this thing happened in March . . . and this accident did compromise the safety of the mine such that it contributed to the latest accident in Utah and they didn't need to report it, then we need to question if these regulations are really working."
Stricklin said the March bump will be part of MSHA's investigation into the Aug. 6 collapse.
But it appears it was not an isolated incident. Falk's inspection reports that "pillar bumps were increasing" and damaging ventilation systems, and Hurst told him "a few large bounces occurred" before the large bounce in March.
Seismograph reports show a major spike in activity, with 15 seismic events in the span of 12 days leading up to the largest on March 10, measuring 1.8 magnitude - an event larger than the Aug. 16 bounce that killed three mine rescuers and injured six others.
After the pillar mining stopped, the mine was relatively quiet, with just five seismic events over the next five months. But as pillar mining again ramped up in July, the mountain again became active, with nine seismic events measured in the 17 days preceding the massive bounce that entombed the six miners.
Walter Arabasz, director of seismograph stations at the University of Utah, said he and his colleagues noticed the spike in seismic activity, but without knowing more about what was happening in the mine, it is impossible to say what was causing the shaking.
"That strong clustering of seismicity certainly attracts attention and warrants examination of what was going on in that mine," he said.