SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The operator of a Utah coal mine where a 2007 collapse led to the deaths of nine people agreed on Friday to plead guilty to two misdemeanor criminal charges and pay a $500,000 fine.
Six miners died at Crandall Canyon in central Utah in the August 2007 collapse so powerful that it initially registered as a 3.9-magnitude earthquake. Another cave-in 10 days later killed two rescuers and a federal inspector. The operation was eventually called off after drilling into the mountain found no sign of the trapped men. Their bodies remain deep in the mine's catacombs.
In documents filed in federal court in Salt Lake City Friday, attorneys for Genwal Resources Inc. noted that while it agreed to plead guilty to two counts of violating mandatory health and safety standards and pay the fine, the company can withdraw the agreement should the court not accept the plea.
The company still maintains it's mine was safe but said the plea agreement "avoids Genwal putting its former employees, their families, and members of the community at large through the ordeal of reliving the tragic events," according to a statement Friday from company lawyers.
"Significantly, the agreement reflects the lack of evidence that any conduct by the company caused the accidents," the statement said.
Genwal, based in Pepper Pike, Ohio, is an affiliate of Murray Energy Corp.
U.S. Attorney David B. Barlow said the charges support their case. According to the two counts filed Friday, Genwal "willfully violated a mandatory health and safety standard" by failing to report the initial accident to federal authorities within 15 minutes. The second charges the company violated approved roof control plans.
"These are the charges that we felt we could prove beyond a reasonable doubt," Barlow said.
Relatives of the victims only heard about the charges Friday morning, and were surprised because they had previously been told there wouldn't be any charges filed, said Alan Mortensen, an attorney representing eight of the families.
While there were mixed reactions, Mortensen said Genwal's guilty plea brings some closure.
"It put Genwal in a position where they had to admit there were willful violations," Mortensen said.
However, he added, the company's steadfast denial of fault "shows a continuing pattern of them not taking responsibility. It's very arrogant and unapologetic."
The company and its insurers had previously settled with family members of the dead miners or rescuers, but the terms of that agreement were never disclosed publicly. Lawyers on both sides have said it exceeded the more than $20 million paid to families of 27 victims of a 1984 fire at the closed Wilberg mine in the same Utah coal district.
The method of mining used at the Genwal site where the deadly collapse occurred has a history of being disproportionately deadly, according to federal safety studies.
The Crandall Canyon mine collapse happened while miners were engaged in a method called "retreat mining," in which pillars of coal are used to hold up an area of the mine's roof. When that area is completely mined, the company pulls the pillar and grabs the useful coal, causing an intentional collapse.
Tony Oppegard, a former top federal and state of Kentucky mine safety official who is now a private attorney in Lexington, Ky., has called the technique "the most dangerous type of mining there is."
According to the American Society of Safety Engineers, retreat mining requires very precise planning and sequencing to ensure roof stability while the pillars supporting the roof are removed.
The reason the practice is used is that it pays off: The last bit of coal taken from pillars is pure profit, Oppegard said. Plus, if someone violates rules during pillar removal and there is a collapse, the evidence of rule violations are gone, he added.
Retreat pillar mining is one of the biggest causes of mine roof collapse deaths, according to studies done by the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health.
"We recognize that nothing we can do will ever bring back the miners who perished, restore the health of those who were injured during the rescue, or erase the nightmares that still haunt those who were firsthand witnesses to these tragedies," Barlow said. "It is this office's intent that these charges send the message to mining companies everywhere: obey the safety laws."
Associated Press writer Paul Foy contributed to this report. AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein also contributed from Washington.