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The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) cracked down Thursday on Murray Energy Corp., fining the company $420,300 for "flagrantly" violating safety laws at its Tower mine in Carbon County.

MSHA based the fines on citations issued Oct. 26, 2006 and June 20, 2007, that accused a Murray Energy subsidiary, Andalex Resources Inc., of repeatedly violating the same safety standard - one designed to prevent mine fires and explosions.

The citations allege the company allowed several problems to persist that could have fueled potentially deadly accidents.

Inspectors repeatedly found excessive accumulations of hydraulic oil, fine coal particles covering electric equipment and excessive amounts of potentially explosive coal dust building up on conveyor belts, MSHA said.

The coal dust standard is especially pertinent at Tower, which is known as a "gassy mine" because the coal seams it excavates contain elevated levels of explosive methane gas. Volatile liquid hydrocarbons, which are like diesel fuel, also are found in Tower's coal seam.

Methane and liquid hydrocarbons ignited a series of explosions in 2000 that killed two miners and injured eight at the Willow Creek mine, which is adjacent to Tower in the Book Cliffs.

"Mine operators that repeatedly violate mine safety standards must be held accountable for their actions," said MSHA director Richard Stickler in a news release announcing the fines, which came close to the maximum penalty allowed ($440,000).

Murray Energy officials did not respond to Tribune requests for comment.

But company officials were aware that "flagrant violation" citations were possible, according to documents cited in a Senate committee report examining last August's Crandall Canyon mine disaster.

Nine miners were killed and six were injured in a pair of wall collapses at the Murray Energy-owned mine in Emery County.

The Senate report cited an Aug. 3, 2007, memo to company owner Robert Murray from Bruce Hill, president of Murray Energy's operations in Utah.

Hill told Murray "we are now contesting all violations issued to [Murray Energy] mines, including a $4,000 violation which was a result of the section of law [governing dust control] having been written 29 times in the past 24 months."

Other documents in the Senate report show that Murray Energy officials complained to MSHA district officials over what they perceived to be "overzealous" enforcement of safety laws by some mine inspectors "and the impact this could have on [Murray Energy] and the possibility of flagrant violations for repeated failure."

E-mails between MSHA officials, also cited in the Senate report, noted that "one of our more level-headed inspectors said the mines are doing less in compliance since Murray took over and that if you want something corrected or done different, you would have to cite it to get it fixed."

The flagrant violation citations were issued during the course of two regular quarterly inspections after Murray Energy moved into Utah in early August 2006 with the purchase of the Tower, Crandall Canyon, South Crandall Canyon and West Ridge mines from Andalex Resources.

Mike Dalpiaz, a United Mine Workers of America executive based in Price, said it is not uncommon for a mine to receive a flagrant violation notice every now and then. "But to have as many as [Murray] has in one mine in such a short time is unbelievable."

Coal dust accumulations in a gassy mine, he added, are "just like gunpowder. . . . It just makes a big powderkeg in the mine."

MSHA's citations

MSHA records show:

*MSHA cited Murray Energy Corp. twice in an eight-month span in 2006 and 2007.

*Among problems:

Serious violation

of safety laws, allowing combustible oil and coal at the Tower mine.

Citations and orders

MSHA records show:

* The first was one of 84 citations and orders issued in an inspection from Oct. 6, 2006 to Jan. 18, 2007. Thirty-eight were deemed "serious and significant." The company paid $123,954 in fines to resolve 81 citations, not counting the flagrant violation penalty assessed Thursday and two still-pending citations.

* The second occurred during an inspection that ran April 9 through June 29, 2007. It was one of 89 citations and orders, 36 of which were "serious and significant." Murray Energy has paid none of the $125,136 in fines assessed before Thursday's flagrant citation penalty was announced.

Source: Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration