The Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) confirmed yesterday that it has referred evidence related to the Crandall Canyon disaster to a federal district attorney for a possible criminal investigation. Murray Energy was assessed a $1.34 million civil penalty on July 24 for violations related to the massive ground failure which took the lives of nine men, but the Mine Act of 1977 also provides for criminal penalties which include up to one year in jail. (In contrast, the OSH Act’s criminal provisions only allows up to 6 months in jail.) The referral was made through the Mine Safety and Health Review Commission to the U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman.
MSHA chief Richard Stickler said in the agency’s news release:
“Through its investigation of the tragic accidents last year at Crandall Canyon, MSHA determined that the operator and its engineering consultants demonstrated reckless disregard for safety. MSHA has referred this case for possible criminal charges.”
Mike Gorrell at the Salt Lake Tribune reports:
“Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, would not say Wednesday whether a criminal investigation has been initiated. But she noted that experienced prosecutors in the office have known since the disaster that Crandall Canyon featured ‘circumstances that we may need to look at.’ Rydalch also observed that this is the second criminal referral related to Crandall Canyon – the first was made in April by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee – and that requests from federal agencies and Congress ‘carry a lot of weight and we take them seriously. But it’s important for us to look at the information independently and take it where it goes. We do it all the time.’ She did add, however, that the ‘families of the miners deserve a complete investigation.'”
Gorrell’s piece continues:
“Kevin Anderson, a Salt Lake City attorney representing the mining company, said late Wednesday the referral ‘comes as no surprise . . . given the profound bias and factual leaps reflected in MSHA’s own report [and] highlighted by the Department of Labor’s independent review.’ …MSHA continues to point fingers at others when its own conduct is under scrutiny. Mr. Stickler’s statement is itself reckless, irresponsible and without factual basis. The facts demonstrate that Genwal Resources Inc. endeavored in good faith to follow safe mining practices and truly believed the mine was safe – a belief that was shared at the time by MSHA itself.'”
Salt Lake Tribune’s Gorrell notes however that some family-member victims of the Crandall Canyon disaster are troubled that the U.S. attorney’s office asked for a procedural stay of activities (e.g., discovery) related to the two civil lawsuits filed against the mine owners and other alleged responsible parties. Curiously, (if I’m reading the article correctly) the mine operator is also unhappy with the stay.
“Colin King and Edward Havas, Salt Lake City attorneys representing many of the plaintiffs…opposed the request to suspend action in the pending civil cases as being unfair to the victims’ families. [Kevin] Anderson, Genwal Resources’ attorney, also objected. He contended it suppresses ‘the public’s access to the very information MSHA claims supports its sensational allegations.'”
A copy of Congressman George Miller’s inquiry to the Dept of Justice is here.