WASHINGTON - The general manager and possibly other senior staff at the Crandall Canyon Mine near Huntington, Utah, where nine miners died last August, hid information from federal officials that could have prevented the disaster and should face criminal charges, the chairman of a House investigation said yesterday.
The chairman, Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, accused the company of concealing the extent of an earlier collapse in the mine that involved the same high-risk technique, known as retreat mining, that was being used when the disaster began. Miller said that if federal mine officials had known the extent of that earlier collapse, they would not have allowed the company to continue using the method, in which miners remove coal from the pillars that hold up the tunnels.
Miller disclosed that he had sent a referral letter in late April to the Justice Department asking it to investigate whether mine manager Laine W. Adair, on his own or in conspiracy with others in the company, concealed facts or made false statements to federal investigators about the condition of the mine before the disaster.
On Aug. 6, roof supports in a section of the mine gave way, causing a collapse that left six miners fatally entombed.
Ten days later, three miners who were trying to rescue the trapped miners died when another tunnel collapsed.
The deaths were avoidable, Miller said. He cited the investigation's findings that in March, five months before the disaster in the south section of the mine, a similar collapse had occurred in a northern section, offering clear red flags that the mine was unstable.
Rather than informing the proper federal mining officials about the true extent of the March collapse, the mine operator cleaned up the site and went on with work in a nearby section, the investigation by the House Committee on Education and Labor concluded.
"Even after the near disaster in March," Miller said in a memorandum released yesterday, "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."
The lawyer for the mine's owner, the Murray Energy Corp., accused Miller of releasing unfounded conclusions and trying "to concoct a criminal referral concerning the tragedy." The company has maintained that the collapse was caused by an earthquake.
The lawyer, Kevin N. Anderson, said in a statement that the company was more interested in what the US Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, found in its investigation, which is to be released in June. Anderson added that the call for a criminal investigation was a "callous inference" based on "a radically incomplete review of the facts."
A similar investigation by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, led by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, also called for the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation. That investigation said it found evidence that Murray Energy was illegally mining the remnant barrier pillar just before the August collapse.
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Many mine safety advocates have criticized MSHA for not aggressively enforcing mine safety laws. In March, the agency's inspector-general said that MSHA had been negligent in protecting the safety of Crandall Canyon workers.
The House panel also said that notes in 2004 from the US Bureau of Land Management, which leased the Crandall Canyon site to Murray, indicated that pillars had begun to deteriorate. The House's investigation found that the March collapse was a clear indicator of the likelihood of the August collapse.
Although Robert E. Murray, the chief executive of the Murray Energy Corp., has argued that an earthquake caused the collapse, federal officials have publicly expressed skepticism about that theory.
A lawyer for relatives of the dead miners said the findings of the investigation were troubling.
"The nine miners who died would all be alive today if Murray Energy had heeded the clear warning signs that were there to see after the March bounce," said Colin King, a lawyer in Salt Lake City. "Instead, the company continued with its same plan to pull out all the coal because of their greed, and that makes their conduct worse than negligent."
King said that the families had filed a lawsuit in April against the company.
Aside from initially ignoring clear warnings, mine operators later seemed to have tried to play down the significance of those warnings, the House panel said.
Deposed by the committee, a federal mining official, Allyn Davis, who inspected photographs of the mine after the March collapse, said the images differed significantly from the description of the event given to him by the mine manager.
"The photos that I saw and the description I got from Laine Adair don't match," said Davis, according to a criminal referral letter sent by Miller to the Justice Department.
In a statement, Adair's lawyer, Gregory L. Poe, said, "The facts will show that Adair's conduct was entirely proper."
A spokesman for the Justice Department said it was still reviewing the committee's request for a criminal investigation.
© 2008 The New York Times