House Lawmaker Calls for Criminal Probe in Crandall Canyon Report

An investigation of the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster that left nine people dead in August 2007 prompted Rep. George, Miller D-Calif., to call for a criminal investigation against the mine's general manager. The probe’s results indicate that Crandall Canyon Mine operators may have intentionally misled MSHA about mine conditions before the fatal collapse.

Miller, who is the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, asked the Department of Justice to investigate whether Crandall Canyon Mine's General Manager Laine Adair concealed facts about the mine from MSHA, whether alone or in conspiracy with other mine executives. If so, Adair’s actions would be in violation of federal law.

"The findings of this investigation demonstrate that the Crandall Mine tragedy might have been avoided at several key moments," said Miller. "They suggest that the mine owner did not act in the interest or safety of its employees.”

On Aug. 6, 2007, the pillars supporting the roof in a section of the mine gave way in a major collapse that left six miners entombed. Days later, three rescuers died after more tunnels fell.

For his report, Miller commissioned Norwest Corporation, a geo-engineering consultancy based in Salt Lake City, to determine if MSHA should have approved a plan submitted by UtahAmerican Energy, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cleveland-based Murray Energy Corporation, to conduct retreat mining in the South Barrier of the Crandall Canyon mine.

According to the report, investigators determined after reviewing 400,000 pages of documents that mine operators may have “deliberately and significantly downplayed” a bump that occurred in the mine's North Barrier section in March 2007. This was a result of the likely deterioration of the mine's pillars, a problem noted by the Bureau of Land Management back in 2004, the report alleged. Miller emphasized that the bump should have been a “red flag” signaling that the mine's pillars weren't strong enough to begin with.

“Even after the near-disaster in March, the company forged ahead with plans to do the same kind of retreat mining in the South Barrier that it had done, with nearly catastrophic consequences, in the North Barrier,” Miller said.

Company Backs Adair

Gregory Poe, Adair's attorney, criticized Miller's request for a criminal investigation in a statement sent to OccupationalHazards.com, calling it “deeply disappointing and utterly unjustified.”

In addition, Kevin Anderson, legal counsel for Genwal Resources, the Murray Energy subsidiary that operated Crandall Canyon, also told OccupationalHazards.com in a written statement that Miller's allegations were based on “his zeal to create a political sensation before the completion of the official investigation.”

“Laine Adair is an honest and plain-speaking man whose integrity and professionalism are well-established in the Utah mining community where he has worked for over thirty years,” Anderson said. “Genwal Resources stands behind Mr. Adair, and we believe Mr. Miller’s efforts to impugn Mr. Adair and other individuals through today’s announcement is deplorable.”

Miller: Findings Don't Absolve MSHA

Miller also chastised MSHA for approving the plan submitted by the mine's operators without doing its “due diligence.” He noted that even if mine operators misled the agency, this “in no way absolves MSHA of its decision to approve the deadly retreat mining plan amendments.”

“MSHA officials must not sit on their hands and wait for mine operators to bring information to them,” Miller said.

In a statement, MSHA urged everyone to wait until the agency issues its own report, which is in progress and investigates the root causes of the Crandall Canyon Mine accident. “Until this report is released, it would be premature and speculative to comment on Congressman Miller's review,” the statement read.

Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of Pennsylvania, the senior Republican on the House Labor Committee, said Miller began his investigation prematurely and "offers little in the way of new information to the families of those who lost their lives at Crandall Canyon."

President of the United Mine Workers of America Cecil Roberts, however, stated that the report confirmed what his organization has been saying all along: “The plan submitted by the mine operator for mining the coal was flawed and should never have been submitted, and MSHA should never have approved it.”

He also commended Miller for commissioning a report that provided more technical insight into what happened at Crandall Canyon on that fateful day in August.

“We believe it is now incumbent upon the Justice Department to fully and completely investigate these matters, without regard to where that investigation may lead,” Roberts said.

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