Genwal agrees to plea deal over Crandall Canyon coal mine accidents

A two-count information, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah on March 9, charges Genwal Resources, the corporate owner of the Crandall Canyon coal mine, with two criminal violations of federal mandatory health and safety standards related to two fatal accidents at the mine in 2007.

The first count of the information charges Genwal for failing to timely report to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) that a significant coal outburst occurred on March 10, 2007, that disrupted regular mining activity for more than one hour and caused the permanent withdrawal of miners from the area. Regulations require mining operators to contact MSHA within 15 minutes once they know that an accident has occurred, said the U.S. Attorney for Utah in a March 9 statement.

The second count of the information alleges the company violated a health and safety standard in an area of the mine known as Main West South Barrier by mining in an area that the MSHA-approved roof control plan expressly prohibited. The information alleges that Genwal mined the barrier pillar on or about Aug. 3, 2007, in the No. 1 entry between crosscuts 142-139, in violation of the roof control plan.

A statement in advance of a plea of guilty, signed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the company, was also filed in court with the information. This document represents a plea agreement in the case which is now subject to judicial review. The company has agreed to plead guilty to both charges in the information and to pay the maximum fine allowed under the law of $250,000 per count.

In the plea agreement, the company admitted that it had a duty to report the March 10, 2007, accident to MSHA within 15 minutes and willfully did not report the accident once it had occurred. The company also admitted that it was aware of the approved roof control plan amendment that prohibited mining the barrier pillar between crosscuts 142-139 in the No. 1 entry and that it willfully mined barrier pillar in the prohibited area.

As a part of the plea agreement, the U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed that it will not bring other charges against Genwal or any of its related companies, individuals, officers or directors in connection with Genwal’s activities at the Crandall Canyon mine in 2006 and 2007, particularly related to the August 2007 fatal accidents and the investigation.

Six miners were trapped inside the Crandall Canyon mine following a roof collapse on Aug. 6, 2007. Over the next several days, rescuers worked to reach the trapped miners. Ten days after the rescue attempt started, another massive coal outburst took the lives of three rescuers and injured six others. Rescue efforts at the mine were then called off and the bodies remain buried in a mine that is too unsafe to enter.

Referrals for criminal investigations of the accidents were made to the Justice Department by the U.S. Senate and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., then Chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. MSHA also made a formal referral to the Justice Department asking for a criminal investigation.

“We were asked to review these referrals to determine whether any criminal violations occurred during the mine accidents,” said U.S. Attorney David Barlow. “In gathering and evaluating the evidence, our office not only considered all of the potential charges that Congress and MSHA referred, but we also considered many more theories of prosecution beyond those in the referrals.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI began an extensive investigation involving the review of more than 84,000 documents containing hundreds of thousands of pages from MSHA and Congress. Although the MSHA and congressional referrals provided needed information, they were not prepared to specifically determine whether there was sufficient evidence of a criminal act to convince a jury to convict beyond a reasonable doubt. Prosecutors and agents conducted interviews, consulted with mining experts, and used other means to gather significant additional evidence in the case. The U.S. Attorney’s Office also conducted its own interviews, consulted with mining experts, and used other investigative tools to seek additional material.

“Criminal laws require a very high standard,” Barlow said. “We must prove that a person knew what the law required and knowingly and willfully violated it. We also must prove every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. After considering the evidence, the law, and the heavy burden of proof we must carry in court, the charges we filed today meet this high standard.”

The Intermountain Power Agency (IPA) at the time of the accidents had part ownership of the Crandall Canyon mine, but gave up that stake later on to its partner in the mine. In May 2009, IPA announced that all of the plaintiffs and all of the defendants in the civil lawsuits stemming from the August 2007 accidents at Crandall Canyon had reached a comprehensive settlement for a confidential amount. IPA had been a major customer for the coal from the mine.

A report issued in 2009 about 2008 Utah coal production from the Utah Geological Survey talked about the post-accident Crandall Canyon shutdown. “UtahAmerican Energy and IPA share equally in ownership of the Crandall Canyon and South Crandall Canyon mines, which are located in the Wasatch Plateau,” said the report. “The mines were operated by Genwal Resources, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of UtahAmerican Energy. Production from the Hiawatha bed at the Crandall Canyon mine ceased in August 2007 after a major roof collapse. As recently as 2001, annual production at Crandall Canyon totaled nearly 4.0 million tons, but only 400,000 tons were produced in 2007 before the mine closed. The South Crandall Canyon mine, located within the Blind Canyon bed, was closed by UtahAmerican in August of 2006 after producing only 1.1 million tons of coal in four years.”

The loss of Utah production from both Crandall Canyon mines has largely been made up since then, including through increased production at UtahAmerican’s longstanding West Ridge longwall mine and through low-level pre-longwall production at UtahAmerican’s new Lila Canyon mine, which went into initial production in the second quarter of 2010.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.