Families of 6 Dead Miners Sue Owners Over Utah Cave-In

April 4, 2008

The families of six men killed in a Utah mine cave-in sued the mine’s Ohio owners, claiming that the collapse occurred because they were harvesting coal unsafely.

The lawsuit filed in 3rd District Court contends Cleveland-based Murray Energy Corp. and its affiliates knowingly continued to perform risky retreat mining last summer, despite a mountain “bounce” in March 2007.

“It was a preventable tragedy,” Colin King, one of several attorneys representing the families, said at a news conference Wednesday. “They were gambling with the safety of the miners.”

A thunderous collapse, so powerful it registered as a 3.9 earthquake, trapped the men in the Crandall Canyon mine on Aug. 6. Their bodies remain entombed there. Three other men were killed 10 days later trying to tunnel in to rescue the miners.

Court papers contend that the March 2007 bounce — a violent ejection of rock and coal from the mine’s ribs, roof or floor — was ample evidence of the danger. It accuses Murray Energy and others of being “motivated by avarice and greed at the expense of safety and human life” in continuing to extract coal.

An attorney for Murray Energy called the allegations of negligence “blatantly false and unnecessarily hurtful.”

Kevin Anderson said comments by the families’ legal team were intended to “smear” Murray Energy chief Bob Murray “with half-truths and innuendo.”

Anderson denied any wrongdoing by Murray Energy and said much of the lawsuit points to events that preceded its ownership.

“What happened at the Crandall Canyon mine last August was a horribly tragic and completely unforeseen event of immense and unprecedented magnitude,” he said. “Our clients did not cause this.”

Murray has insisted that the collapse was caused by an earthquake.

Murray Energy purchased Crandall Canyon in August 2006 and shares ownership with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Intermountain Power Agency, a utility consortium comprised of about two dozen Utah municipalities.

IPA and LADWP are also defendants in the lawsuit. In a joint statement, they did not comment on the allegations but said they respected the families’ right to go to court.

“Our sympathies continue to go out to the families of those who lost their lives as well as those who suffered injuries during the rescue efforts,” the statement said.

Thirty pages of court documents detail a string of decisions by Murray Energy and its associated companies to conduct “retreat mining” at Crandall Canyon. The process involves yanking supporting pillars of coal from inside the mine and letting the roof collapse as miners and equipment work their way out.

“What comes through from our review of the materials is that there is an overarching attitude of greed and that profit took a higher priority in these operations than safety and the sanctity of human life,” said Ed Havas, an attorney for the families.

Previous owners of the mine had rejected retreat mining as too risky, a finding supported by at least one federal mining safety investigator, the Bureau of Land Management and the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining.

The lawsuit contends that Murray Energy sought an engineering analysis from Colorado-based Agapito Associates Inc., to justify its plans. Agapito’s president, Michael Hardy, declined to comment.

The plan included mining with safety margins that were less than half of those recommended by the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health, King said.

“We just think that’s irresponsible,” he said.

The plan was ultimately approved by the federal Mine Health and Safety Administration.

“There’s a lot of evidence in this case that Murray Energy pushed (MSHA) very hard and got away with things they shouldn’t have,” King said.

In a report released Monday, Elliot Lewis, assistant inspector general for the U.S. Department of Labor, said MSHA was negligent in approving a faulty roof-control plan for Murray Energy. The report questioned the agency’s approval for retreat mining.

In the same report, MSHA director Richard Stickler disputed that his agency was negligent or that it was unduly influenced by the mine operator.

The families of the miners –Kerry Allred, Don Erickson, Luis Hernandez, Carlos Payan, Brandon Phillips and Manuel Sanchez –are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, along with two injured rescue workers and their families.

The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of money.

Other defendants in the lawsuit are Murray Energy affiliates UtahAmerican Energy, Andalex Resources Inc., and Agapito.

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