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Published: Thursday, 7/24/2008

Feds to release report on Utah mine disaster


PRICE, Utah Federal regulators giving a report on what went wrong at a deadly Utah mine cave-in last summer said they expected a critique of their own performance by another agency.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration began a private briefing for families Thursday morning and were to hold a news conference afterward to release their report on the Crandall Canyon mine.

Scott Matheson, chairman of Utah Mine Safety Commission, said had had doubts about the federal group's ability to assess its own performance and believes that an independent agency should have conducted the investigation.

"I just think as a matter of good government and policy, having some independence would make sense," said Matheson, a former dean of the University of Utah law school and professor there.

A second report by the U.S. Department of Labor will take a critical look at MSHA's performance, said department spokesman Rich Kulczewski. The report could be out within days.

Central to the administation's investigation is why the federal enforcement agency responsible for the health and safety of the nation's miners approved a plan for risky retreat mining at Crandall Canyon mine, and whether the operator, Cleveland-based Murray Energy Corp., disclosed the dangerous conditions or properly reported early signs of trouble there.

The federal agency tapped a retired district director, Richard A. Gates of Birmingham, Ala., as chief of the investigative team. Six other members are career MSHA officials.

The Aug. 6 collapse was so powerful that it registered as a 3.9 earthquake at the University of Utah. Trapped deep inside were six miners whose bodies have never been recovered. Three others were killed as rescuers tried to tunnel toward the trapped miners.

Internal company memos revealed that Murray Energy was digging into massive blocks of coal that should have been left standing to hold the mine up, according to a March report issued by Sen. Edward Kennedy's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

The same report found that Murray Energy was excavating coal from tunnel floors, undermining other coal pillars straining under the tremendous weight of the mountain.

Allyn Davis, who oversees MSHA's Western operations, told Kennedy's committee that mining "bottom coal" is generally prohibited, although it wasn't clear if Murray Energy had permission to do it. Internal company memos made no secret of the practice, which continued to within days of the collapse.

When Wendy Black, a widow of one of the rescuers Dale Black, was asked what she expected from the Mine Safety and Health Administration report, she replied "all smoke."

She has doubts about whether MSHA can fairly attribute responsibility for the twin disasters. She has followed the investigations closely, saying her only objective is to ensure safe conditions for other Utah coal miners.

Her husband, Dale "Bird" Black, was at the head of the rescue team, operating a 65-ton grinding machine that bored its way through the rubble toward the trapped miners on Aug. 16.

Black took the full brunt of the second cave-in and died instantly, a medical examiner told his widow, who held a closed-casket funeral.

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