CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal prosecutors on Friday announced a misdemeanor plea deal in the 2007 deaths of nine workers at a Utah coal mine, prompting renewed calls for tougher sanctions in mine safety cases and bringing praise for the approach U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin has taken to date in his criminal probe of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.
Genwal Resources Inc. agreed to plead guilty to two mine safety crimes for violations federal investigators had earlier cited as contributing factors in the disaster at its Crandall Canyon Mine nearly five years ago.
Under the deal, Genwal Resources will pay the maximum fine of $250,000 for each of the two criminal counts outlined in a charging document filed late Friday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City.
No charges will be brought against any Genwal mine managers or any executives from the parent company, Murray Energy.
The settlement drew harsh criticism from the United Mine Workers union, members of Congress and independent safety advocates.
It highlighted what mine safety reformers say is a major flaw in federal law: Criminal violations of safety and health standards are misdemeanors that carry less jail time. And, safety advocates said, the case emphasized the importance for prosecutors to look beyond mine safety laws to other criminal offenses such as conspiracy as they try to build a case to hold corporate officials responsible for mining deaths.
"If this is the best they could do under current law, then something is drastically wrong with the current law," said UMW spokesman Phil Smith. "If it's not, then something is drastically wrong with the prosecutor's office in Utah."
At a press conference held shortly after the plea deal was filed, David Barlow, the U.S. Attorney for Utah, defended his office's handling of the case, citing the "heavy burden of proof that we must carry in court."
"These were the two criminal charges that were appropriate," Barlow said. "These were the two criminal charges we could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt."
At Crandall Canyon, six miners died in a catastrophic implosion of the underground mine's walls on Aug. 6, 2007. Ten days later, while rescuers searched for any survivors, the walls blew in again, killing three more men.
The disaster and the frantic rescue attempt, coming the year after the Sago Mine Disaster in West Virginia, was followed on national television broadcasts that featured Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray, a controversial coal operator who - like Massey Energy's Don Blankenship - revels in boisterous verbal assaults on government regulators, labor unions, environmental groups and the media.
In a press release, Genwal Resources said the plea agreement "reflects the lack of evidence" that any conduct by the company caused the August 2007 disaster.
But the two criminal counts to which Genwal agreed to plead guilty actually were among the contributing violations that drew the company and one of its consultants $1.8 million in fines from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
In one count, Genwal Resources will plead guilty to failing to report an earlier mine "bump" in March 2007. In the other, the company will plead guilty to violating its MSHA-approved roof control plan by mining blocks of coal that were supposed to be left to provide ground support. Both actions by Genwal were cited as contributory violations in an MSHA report released in July 2008.