June 17, 2011 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

NPR’s Howard Berkes reported this week on the disposition of criminal and civil charges stemming from the disaster nearly four years ago at the Crandal Canyon mine in Utah. The makings of the catastrophe began months earlier, (previous posts here, here, here) but came to a deadly denouement in the early morning hours of August 6, 2007. An explosive outburst of rock and coal, related to the retreat-mining method in use at the mine, struck (killed) and buried six coal miners: Kerry “Flash” Allred, 57; Don Erickson, 50; Jose Luis Hernandez, 23; Juan Carlos Payan, 22; Brandon Phillips, 24; and Manuel Sanchez, 42. Mine rescue teams worked diligently in an attempt to rescue and/or recover the six men, but the conditions were extremely unstable, volatile and deadly. Ten days later at 6:38 pm, another deadly rockburst occurred seriously injuring six rescuers,** and killing three men: Dale Black “Bird,” 49; Brandon Kimber, 29; and MSHA inspector Gary Jensen, 53. Six of the nine victims’ bodies remain in the mine.

MSHA investigated the disaster and issued citations and penalties against the mine operator, Murray Energy ($1.6 million), and against a mining engineering firm, Agapito ($220,000.) MSHA also referred the case to the Justice Department (DOJ) for a criminal investigation. As Berkes reports in “Still No Criminal Charges in 2007 Utah Mine Disaster,” DOJ has yet to file any charges or even say whether criminal charges are warranted. The statute of limitation for criminal charges is August 2012.

When MSHA issued its citations and penalties against the two companies, both firms contested them to the Federal Mine Safety & Health Review Commission, which is their right under current federal law. But because of DOJ’s criminal probe, the US attorney asked the Labor Department to request an administrative stay from the Review Commission pending the outcome of the Justice Dept’s work. As a result, the citations and penalties related to the 2007 disaster remain in limbo, including six violations classified as “flagrant,” the most egregious category used by MSHA.

Mine safety and health reporter Ellen Smith predicted that this case would be tied up in litigation limbo for 6-8 years, but few people believed her. They said things like “the evidence was so clear-cut that the company’s behavior was criminal.” Ellen’s long-time experience reporting on mine safety issues told her that justice is often delayed and regrettably, often denied.

For those of us watching other cases of egregious employer behavior, including decisions that lead to or contribute to the deaths of workers (e.g., Massey Energy at Upper Big Branch) we know not to hold our breathe waiting for corporate officials to be held accountable, or even hauled off to jail.

**Note: The seriously injured were miners: Joseph Bouldin, 37, Lester Day, 49, Carl Gressmen, 37, Casey Metcalf, 22, and Jeff Tripp, 40, along with MSHA inspector Frank Markosek, 57. Last February, Salt Lake Tribune reporter Mike Gorrell shares with us the serious physical and mental toll the disaster has taken on the former federal employee. Markosek suffered a crushing brain injury. Both his family and the widow of his fellow inspector Gary Jensen were forced into battles with the federal workers’ compensation program.

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