Crandall Canyon, Insist that Congress, Labor and the DOJ Investigate and Prosecute

Crandall Canyon graphic, click on the Image for full size.

“Our relationship with Mr. Murray has been stormy thus far. That is also the pattern of his relationship with MSHA at his eastern mines. Just wanted to give you a heads up on that. He may not be a willing participant if he senses that anything you do could impact his ability to produce coal.” from an e-mail written by MSHA district nine manager Allyn Davis

No story in recent years has illustrated, at least in my mind, the true peril of the unholy marriage of crony capitalists and wealthy, politically connected corporatists to venal government officials, as does the compound tale of the mine collapse and failed rescue attempt at Crandall Canyon mine, near Price, Utah last August.

The story, as it unfolded on the nation’s front pages and TV screens, was another tale of human tragedy that emerges all too often from the dark, dangerous man made caverns where for centuries, men have labored in extremely harsh conditions to provide the fuel to light and heat our homes, to power our industries, and drive our ships and railroads. No profession on the planet is more dangerous than mining the coal at the center of a mountain.

In the early morning hours of August 6, 2007, a large mountain “bounce” occurred in the Main West section of Crandall Canyon mine. “bounce” is the technical term used to describe a collapse of this type in a mine, but it does not capture the force and explosive power of the event – “blast” would be much more apt. In such a powerful release of seismic energy, the coal in the pillars and walls of the mine, under extreme pressure, literally explode into mined out areas.

Notes taken by the first Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) inspector to descend into the mine after the collapse graphically describe the massive force unleashed by the event:

“roof bolts were sheared off… direction of force had come from the North.”
” some areas, coal was pulverized!”
” with the amount of rubble in the entries 5 to 6 ft deep, could anyone manage to survive the initial release of energy” Exhibit 1.

The bounce registered 3.9 on the Richter scale. According to the United States Geological Survey, a seismic event of magnitude 4 is equivalent to detonating 15 tons of TNT. In this case, seismic records show that the blast lasted for 4 minutes. Another inspector who examined the scene soon after the explosion wrote that mine walls were blown “as far as 45 ft. from origin!”

Six miners were working in the area at the time of the collapse: Kerry Allred, Don Erickson, Luis Hernandez, Juan Carlos Payan, Brandon Phillips, and Manuel Sanchez. All are presumed dead. Tragically, a second powerful bounce occurred on August 16, killing MSHA inspector Gary Jensen and miners Dale Ray Black and Brandon Kimber, all of whom were working on rescue operations at the time.

From the introduction to Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee report cited below.

Shortly after the rescue attempt ended in disaster I wrote an article about the tragedy, posted here and there around the net, and while researching that piece and a later follow up I began to have the feeling that it was probable that a criminal case might be pursued against the mine owners and senior management as well as officials within the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) due to what appeared to be an utter disregard for the safety of their employees on the first part and the terrible negligence in fulfilling legally required regulatory functions on the second.

Last Thursday the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee released its “Report on the August 6, 2007 Disaster At Crandall Canyon Mine.” I took the time to read it during the last couple of days, it’s hardly light reading, 75 pages of load bearing specs for coal columns, a year long chronology of the push and pull between a politically connected mine owner and the MSHA district and local field offices, e-mails and bits and pieces of evidence gathered from internal company documents, whistle blowers and testimony before the committee. In addition to the report there are 415 pages of exhibits. I found in these 75 pages an indictment, of business, of government, and of a political philosophy.

Not light reading, but profoundly interesting if you are interested in such things as campaign finance reform, workplace safety, governmental corruption and collusion with private interests, how the public treasury is being turned to private control and the prevailing diregard for the lives and welfare of honest, innocent working people. The report doesn’t actually discuss those subjects, of course, but I’m sure it will lead the reader to some fresh insight in those areas.

Crandall Canyon is the story of a mine owner, Bob Murray of Murray Energy, an independent operator, fiercely non union, rabidly anti regulation and the 12th largest coal mining operator in the country. His company operates 19 mines in Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, as well as Utah. Murray Energy bought a fifty percent stake in the Crandall Canyon mine just a year before the deadly collapse and promptly submitted a mining plan to retrieve coal at depths and in a manner that by all accounts should not have been considered and certainly should not have been approved.

From the report:

During the formulation and review of the plan, Murray Energy and MSHA either ignored or missed important facts about the mine’s safety history that were clearly relevant to a safety assessment. Before Murray Energy purchased Crandall Canyon, both the mine’s previous owner, Andalex Resources, and federal officials considered the Main West (editor’s note: Main West is the area where the collapse occurred) area too dangerous for retreat mining and decided to seal it. During a visit to the mine to consider the request to seal it, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) inspector noted hazardous safety conditions in Main West. The prior owners also submitted a mine plan to the Utah mine regulatory agency describing how barrier pillars – which Murray Energy later proposed to mine – would be left to guarantee stability. page 8

The previous owner was no Bob Murray. There was a lot of coal left in that mine and Murray meant to extract it and the fact that the remaining coal was in giant pillars which were holding up a mountain, a massive overburden soaring as much as 2200 feet above the operation was not going to hold him back, nor would the fact that the MSHA had never before approved a retreat mining plan at that depth. The crews had hard hats, didn’t they? Again, from the report:

The record compiled by the investigation shows that Murray Energy was operating a dangerous mine in a potentially dangerous manner, was lax about or hostile to safety, and was bullying a compliant MSHA. Murray Energy’s safety record is well below average and was poor at Crandall Canyon Mine in particular. page 7Murray Energy Has a Poor General Safety Record MSHA statistics show that mines owned and operated by Murray Energy perform worse than the national average on safety measures. The injury incidence rate for Murray Energy owned and operated mines in 2006 was 69% higher than the national average(7.98 vs. 4.72) and, for the first quarter of 2007, 86% higher than the national average (8.15 vs. 4.37). page 18

Bob Murray is also very well connected politically having donated heavily to GOP candidates both personally and through his PAC over the years. Having friends in high places who owe you favors is an age old lubricant that greases the wheels of American business and nothing was going to slow down the wheels of Murray’s operation.

Murray Energy Corp.’s political action committee has been an active contributor to GOP candidates.The Murray Energy Corp. Political Action Committee has given more than $155,000 to Republican candidates, including $30,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, since 2005, according to Federal Election Commission records.

The committee donated to Republican Senate candidates such as George Allen in Virginia, now presidential candidate Sam Brownback of Kansas and Katherine Harris of Florida. It also gave to Ohio Republican Reps. Deborah Pryce and Patrick Tiberi, and Ohio Republican Sen. George Voinovich. The committee did not give to any Democrats during the same period, FEC records show.

In 2004, Murray gave $15,000 of his own money to the NRSC, and he gave $10,000 in 2006. Among other donations in the last election cycle, he gave $2,000 to Ohio Republican Sen. Mike DeWine’s unsuccessful re-election campaign. Spotlight On Murray Energy

In today’s political climate donating money to office seekers is not illegal, in fact it is de rigueur for well heeled entrepreneurs seeking to bend rules, avoid regulations, minimize regulatory scrutiny, suspend the law and of course, increase the bottom line. As many of us have long suspected, those paying so dearly for our progressively more expensive political campaigns fully and firmly expect to have those awkward places that they just can’t reach, carefully scratched when they feel the need and Bob Murray had a serious itch for the coal that remained in the pillars in the belly of his mountain. The subcommittee continues:

In an October 24, 2006 e-mail, Bob Cornett, Assistant District Manager for Inspections in district nine, writes colleague Bill Denning (Davis’ staff assistant) about how owner Robert Murray, in a meeting with MSHA officials, emphasized his power to have MSHA inspectors transferred:

Mr. Murray also got vocal on the issue of Tim Thompson having inspectors put a closure order on his longwall and that he complained to someone in Congress about it and that Mr. Thompson resultantly lost his job. Mr. Murray did state that he did not have Thompson fired, but that he would not stand by to be treated wrongly and would complain. Exhibit 3On October 4, 2006 assistant district 9 manager Bill Knepp writes to Kevin Stricklin, Administrator of MSHA’s Office of Coal Mine Safety & Health, that Over the course of the first 10 days of Murray Energy ownership they have aggressively opposed enforcement actions taken by [MSHA] Inspectors Currant and Shumway, accused them both of retaliation, met with Supervisor Farmer and attempted to dictate how inspections should be performed at the mines. All indications so far are that this operator intends to use whatever means available to try to leverage enforcement at their mines. Exhibit 17. page 19

Although the law was on their side and the safety of the miners was in their hands, men laboring under the weight of hundreds of thousands of tons of rock and coal, men that they, as federal officials were sworn to protect, officials at MSHA knuckled under. Facing the wrath of a greedy, bullying, blustering old mine operator and his implicit threats of arranging harm to their careers some MSHA officials, instead of standing firmly on the side of the law and the safety of the workforce, negotiated a deal with the company to ignore the law. From the report:

4. MSHA set itself up to fail to properly monitor conditions at Crandall Canyon by entering into an improper agreement with Murray EnergyDespite the gravity of the March bounce in the North barrier pillar, Crandall Canyon Mine officials failed to formally notify MSHA. The record strongly suggests that the law required the company to report the incident. Certainly, under the enhanced monitoring requirements that Owens imposed on the company in late 2006, MSHA should have immediately conducted an on-site inspection and seriously reevaluated the company’s plans to mine in the South barrier. However, MSHA neither cited Murray Energy for failing to formally report the bounce, nor conducted an on-site inspection of the bounce’s aftermath.

A possible – and inexcusable – reason for this reporting failure was a tacit agreement between Murray Energy and MSHA to excuse the company from the Mine Act’s reporting requirements. In May 2006, MSHA officials Ted Farmer and Bill Taylor entered into an informal agreement with Murray Energy official Adair that MSHA would relax the reporting requirements for seismic events:


Exhibit 130.This agreement is an abdication of MSHA’s regulatory responsibilities. MSHA has no authority to carve out special exceptions from the law – which is exactly what was done here.

Under this agreement, MSHA excused Murray Energy from following laws that require a mine operator to immediately report any “a coal or rock outburst that causes withdrawal of miners or which disrupts regular mining activity for more than one hour.” [30 CFR 50.2(h)] MSHA rewrote the law for Murray Energy, requiring it to report a bounce only if an injury resulted, a much more permissive standard. page 67

Crandall Canyon is a story about greedy capitalism and weak “public servants,” a story of nine innocent men who died needlessly in the act of doing their jobs, because other men failed to, or ignored, their jobs, but it is more than that, It is is a glaringly visible symptom of a cultural cancer that is devouring the heart of America, a disease which if not cured, and cured quickly, will destroy this country faster and more efficiently than any foreign enemy, faster than any band of bearded terrorists. We will not have to leave the shores or the boundaries of the United States to find and fight this sickness, it is in full bloom in boardrooms and executive suites in every corner of corporate America, in defense, in banking, insurance, health care and all the rest.

The carriers of this plague, yes, “the real axis of evil,” have infested our private and governmental institutions with a level of incompetence, collusion and criminality borne of abject avarice that is stunning, disgusting and terrifying. The Committee recommends:

The investigation demonstrates that the Department of Justice must get involved and that there is a need for significant reforms in the process of formulating, reviewing and approving mine plans:

1. The Secretary of Labor Should Refer the Case to the Department of Justice For Prosecution.
The record shows that Murray Energy failed to exercise care and caution in formulating the mine plan, disregarded increasing signs of danger in the mine, failed to tell MSHA about these dangers, and violated the mine plan in a way that put miners in danger. Murray Energy’s actions must be fully investigated and those who broke the law must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

The committee in its conclusion:

The Committee’s investigation shows that, had Murray Energy and MSHA exercised appropriate care in formulating and reviewing the plans for mining the barrier pillars in Main West, the tragedies of August 2007 might have been avoided. There are multiple points at which a cautious approach could have prevented, or greatly reduced the risk of, the collapse that eventually occurred.Because of these failures, miners were exposed to unnecessary and extreme risks. The mine operator and MSHA must be held accountable for their failures of diligence, care and oversight. The secretary of Labor should refer the case to the Department of Justice for prosecution. page 74

What will come of this story? I wish that I could predict a vigorous investigation and prosecution by the DOJ, but that august institution has been infected as well, as nearly everyone is aware. I hope that congress will bring every pressure to bear to push Labor and Justice to uphold the law and I hope that some who read this will apply pressure on the congress. The families of the victims deserve justice as well as just compensation for their losses, and other men and women deserve the right to ply their crafts, trades and professions without fear that their employer is endangering their lives with the assistance of the federal government.

I urge everyone to read the report, at least the executive summary which is four pages near the beginning. As you read, imagine that what happened in Crandall Canyon under the less than watchful eyes of the MSHA is being repeated in every area of American business under regulatory authorities equally as competent, equally as diligent.

Imagine that… because it is.

Bob Higgins
Worldwide Sawdust

Related stories and links:
Bid to Reopen Mine Divides Grieving Utah Town
Crandall Canyon, The King of the Mountain , The Fox in the Coop
The Utah Mine Disaster: A Teachable Moment About Workplace Safety
I See Dead People
Columbus Dispatch
Two For The Money
Memo shows mine already had roof problems in March
Robert Murray “The Hills Are Alive” and Other Absurdities

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About BobHiggins

Lifelong liberal of the Tom Paine wing. Marine Vietnam vet. Have worked as a photographer, cab driver, bartender, carpenter and cabinetmaker. Now retired on a Veterans Disability program I spend my time writing and editing and complaining. Ahh the Golden Years.
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