“Destined to fail.”  That is the troubling conclusion of MSHA’s 12-month investigation of the coal mine disaster at the Crandall Canyon coal mine that killed nine men last August.  They were: Kerry Allred, 58; Dale Black, 48; Don Erickson, 50; MSHA’s Gary Jensen, 53; Brandon Kimber, 29; Luis Hernandez, 23; Brandon Phillips, 24; Carlos Payan, 22; and Manuel Sanchez, 41.  It is terribly disturbing to realize how these families’ lives would so be different today, had someone made the conclusion “destined to fail” before these engineering plans were being develop and approved.

Mike Gorrell and Robert Gehrke of the Salt Lake Tribune provide comprehensive coverage of MSHA’s report which was shared yesterday with the deceased men’s families.  The mining company, [Robert] Murray Energy Corp., Inc., was assessed a $1.6 million penalty for violations related to the disaster; the mining engineering firm, Agapito Associates, which advised on the company’s mining plan, was assessed a $220,000 penalty. 

Also released yesterday was the report prepared by two former MSHA managers, providing their independent review of MSHA’s performance, as requested by Labor Secretary Chao.

The Salt Lake Tribune’s Gehrke and Gorrell write:

“The Crandall Canyon coal mine was so poorly engineered that it was primed for a collapse, but federal regulators failed repeatedly to catch the flaws and approved a plan that was ‘destined to fail,’ a pair of reports on the disaster said today.  …The investigation by the federal MSHA found that the mine was inadequately designed; that the operator violated the approved mine plan, further weakening the structure; and that information signaling potential danger was withheld.”

“Meantime, a Labor Department [independent] review was harshly critical of MSHA’s role in the disaster, saying the agency repeatedly failed to detect any of the warning signs and deficiencies in the mine.  Taken in tandem, the reports show that the Aug. 6 disaster was set in motion more than two years ago with poor design, a shoddy approval process, an operator that violated its mine plan and three times failed to report serious structural problems, and MSHA inspectors who were not thorough in their reviews.

“Investigators found that computer modeling of the mine plan by Agapito Associates, Inc., the engineering firm hired by the mine’s co-owner, Murray Energy Corp., determined the mine would be unstable, but did not submit the findings to MSHA when the company sought approval to mine. Other models were badly flawed.  And the mine operator further undermined the stability by violating the approved mine plan and cutting additional coal from the floor and thick barrier walls inside the mine.”

“In a statement, Genwal Resources, which is co-owned by Murray Energy and Utah-based Intermountain Power Agency, said the report was disappointing.  ‘Regrettable, this report does not have the benefit of all of the facts and appears to have been tainted in part by 10 months of relentless political clamoring to lay blame for these tragic events,” the company said.

The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward writing “MSHA Failed Crandall Miners, Review Says” focused his journalist’s acumen on the independent review by former MSHA district managers Joe Pavlovich and Ernie Teaster.  (Pavlovich was also on the McAteer team investigating the Sago Mine disaster.)

Sloppy mining plan reviews, lax inspections and a disorganized rescue effort by the federal Department of Labor contributed to the August 2007 deaths of nine workers at a Utah coal mine, according to an independent review made public Thursday evening.  Bush administration budget cuts, staffing reductions at labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, and an emphasis on ‘compliance assistance’ over enforcement played a role at the Crandall Canyon Mine and in an upsurge in coal-mining deaths over the past three years, according to the report.”

“Retired MSHA officials Earnest Teaster and Joseph Pavlovich praised the hard work and dedication of rank-and-file mine inspectors, but their 200-page report echoed other serious criticisms of a deterioration in federal mine safety efforts in recent years.  ‘The agency did not remain vigilant in its efforts to prevent future accidents through inspections and plan review activities.’”

“Teaster and Pavlovich found that MSHA improperly evaluated the information that Murray Energy did provide, and missed at least one of the earlier bumps because of an incomplete inspection.”

Ken Ward has reported previously on MSHA’s failure to complete mandatory inspections at coal mining operations, including instances in which workers subsequently died.

I’m thankful for the public service that Gehrke, Gorrell and Ward provide, staying up all night reading these reports.