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Posted: 9:14 PM- A critical report from a Senate committee this week suggests that federal regulators caved well before the Crandall Canyon coal mine.
Mine Safety and Health Administration officials yielded to pressure from officials with the mining company, appear to have sped up approval of mining in Crandall Canyon and backed off on safety enforcement actions, records obtained by the committee appear to show.
"MSHA missed significant flaws in [the company's engineering] analysis, dismissed critical findings by MSHA's own engineer and did not submit the plans - which proposed one of the most hazardous mining operations ever intended - for review by MSHA's expert technical staff," stated the report by the committee, chaired by Sen. Edward Kennedy.
The report adds ammunition for critics who have long said the agency is too cozy with the industry it regulates and has compromised worker safety.
Matthew Faraci, a spokesman for MSHA, said the agency's investigative team is preparing a report on the accident and "appropriate enforcement actions, including any criminal referrals." A Labor Department internal review is also studying MSHA's actions related to the mine disaster.
"Until the MSHA accident report and the [Labor Department] independent internal review are concluded, any speculation by Senator Kennedy's staff is premature and inappropriate," he said.
Michael McKown, general counsel for UtahAmerican Energy Inc., the Murray Energy subsidiary that co-owns the mine, said the company is "shocked and outraged" at the Senate report.
"This sensational and irresponsible report makes slanderous allegations against innocent individuals," he said.
The report documents how, soon after buying Crandall Canyon from Andalex Resources, Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray began resisting MSHA's enforcement efforts.
Later, when Murray sought to mine the north barrier - a 450-foot thick coal wall supporting the north side of the main mine passage - MSHA engineer Peter Del Duca reported to superiors that, based on computer models, the coal could not be safely mined.
Davis informed the company In November 2006 that "the plan, as currently written, would not be approved."
But the next month, MSHA roof control specialist Billy Owens met with Crandall's general manager, Laine Adair, and returned to tell Del Duca that his analysis was flawed and the mining was approved.
And in February 2007, a company official reported to Murray that Allyn Davis, agency manager of the district that includes Utah, committed to expedite approval of plans to retreat mine, which entails cutting away the coal pillars that support the roof. MSHA signed off on it the next day.
After a few weeks of retreat mining in the north barrier, the pressure bearing down on the coal pillars caused a major bounce, blasting coal from the walls and pillars and tearing apart passageways for hundreds of yards, forcing the company to abandon mining in the area.
But the company moved ahead with plans to do similar retreat mining in the south barrier and pressured its engineering firm, Agapito Associates, to pump out a revised plan, which it submitted to MSHA on May 16, 2007.
The National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health found numerous flaws in the Agapito analysis. But MSHA brass never sent Agapito's work to its own technical experts, fearing the review would take too long, and Murray officials were pressing for a decision.
On June 13, 2007, James Poulson, UtahAmerican's safety officer, pressed MSHA's Owens for a decision: "I have a fire under my a****** to get his approved. I need your help."
MSHA approved the plan two days later and miners began cutting the pillars away on July 17. It lasted less than a month before the Aug. 6 collapse that entombed the six miners - Kerry Allred, Don Erickson, Luis Hernandez, Juan Carlos Payan, Brandon Phillips and Manuel Sanchez.