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Mining Company Pleads Guilty In 2007 Utah Mine Disaster Case

Coal mining company Genwal Resources has pleaded guilty to corporate criminal charges stemming from the 2007 Crandall Canyon mine collapse in Utah that left nine miners and rescuers dead.

Federal prosecutors say a plea agreement includes a provision that no criminal charges will be filed against any individuals in the case.

Federal and congressional investigators blamed the an initial mine collapse on "retreat mining," in which pillars of coal holding up the roof of the mine are dug out, causing collapse of the mine behind them.

Retreat mining was specifically forbidden by the federally-approved roof control plan for the mine. The two misdemeanor counts charged in the plea agreement include a willful violation of mandatory health and safety standards involving retreat mining four days before the initial August 7 mine collapse, which trapped and killed six miners.

But prosecutors say they were unable to demonstrate, given the evidence, a direct connection between the violation and the fatal mine collapse.

"We were unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the company's actions caused the mine collapse," said David Barlow, the U.S. Attorney for Utah.

The other charge involves the failure to report an earlier mine collapse in which no one was injured.

The plea agreement calls for $500,000 in fines and must still be approved by a federal judge.

Three rescuers were killed and six others injured in another mine collapse during a rescue effort that was eventually abandoned. The bodies of the six miners initially killed remain in the mine, which has been sealed.

Update at 5:06 p.m. Was The Company Vindicated?

In a statement, Genwal suggests the charges vindicate the company.

"Significantly, the agreement reflects the lack of evidence that any conduct by the Company caused the accidents of August 6 or 16, 2007," the company said. "Genwal has always maintained that its plan for mining the Crandall Canyon Mine was safe..."

In response, U.S. Attorney Barlow said, "the filing of our charges does not reflect a judgment that they were somehow uninvolved in any of this or that they had no fault or culpability."

Barlow said the two charges "were they ones we could prove the guilt of the mining company beyond a reasonable doubt. That and only that is what should be taken from the filing of those two criminal charges."

Update at 5:20 p.m. ET. Time To Move Forward With Legislative Changes:

In a statement, Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said he hopes the plea bargain "brings some comfort to the families."

Miller added:

"Many expected more from this four year investigation, including me, and with the U.S. Attorney's findings, we must move forward with legislative changes. The health and safety of America's miners must not be held up by predictable partisan battles. Miners and their families shouldn't have to wait for another tragedy to occur. It's well past time we get back to work."

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Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.
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