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Feds ready report on Crandall Canyon disaster

Feds ready report on Crandall Canyon disaster

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Federal mining regulators will release the findings of an investigation into the Crandall Canyon mine collapse on Thursday.

Officials will first brief families of the nine people who died at the Utah mine nearly a year ago before publicly releasing the report the same day. The family briefing is expected to last for hours.

"It's going to be a long, emotionally draining and trying day, and I think it will be a relief for the families to hear the report, regardless of what it says," said Ed Havas, an attorney for the families who are suing the mine owners.

The family briefing and a news conference will take place in Price, about 120 miles southeast of Salt Lake City in the heart of Utah's coal belt.

The report will contain new information about the twin catastrophes at Crandall Canyon, federal Mine Safety and Health Administration officials said at a safety conference held in Salt Lake City on Monday. They declined further comment. Havas said lawyers have no idea what the report will conclude.

MSHA officials had planned to release the report earlier, and discuss its findings at the Utah conference, but ran into delays translating the report into Spanish, agency chief Richard Stickler said. Several of the deceased miners were Hispanic.

Six miners were killed on Aug. 6, 2007, when the underground mine collapsed. Ten days later, two rescuers and an MSHA inspector were crushed to death when the walls of the same tunnel caved inward. The rescue effort was called off, leaving the bodies of the six miners trapped inside.

Stickler said MSHA has taken a number of steps to improve mine safety since Crandall Canyon imploded. He said the agency is scrutinizing ground-control plans more carefully before giving its approval for underground coal mining.

"We also understand that all (coal) pillars fail over time -- the vast majority fail very slowly" unlike what happened at Crandall Canyon, he said.

MSHA has strengthened training and emergency response procedures for mine disasters. It also has more than doubled the amount of civil penalties for the thousands of safety violations cited at coal mines every year, Stickler said.

But Monday's conference, organized by Wheeling (W.Va.) Jesuit University, showed that the risks of deep underground coal mining are still poorly understood. The Crandall Canyon mine was more than 1,500 feet deep inside a mountain.

"There's a lot we don't know about bumps," said Joe Zelanko, of MSHA's Office of Technical Support in Pittsburgh. A bump is a sudden release of pressure inside a mine.

Seismologists can't predict when coal mines are ready to give way, said Walter Arabasz, director of the University of Utah's Seismograph Stations. Arabasz was the first to contact authorities about a tremor at Crandall Canyon that registered at magnitude 3.9 early on the morning of Aug. 6.

Federal regulators, meanwhile, said Monday they were backing away from a goal of requiring underground mines to install wireless communications and tracking systems for miners by June 2009. Technology for penetrating hard rock isn't available and MSHA will mandate "the next best thing," Stickler said.

The hybrid systems under development use underground wires -- which are prone to breaking in a collapse or explosion -- and wireless routers.

Meanwhile, two memorials to the dead miners and rescuers are nearing completion. Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp., the mine's operator, plans to ready one memorial near the mine's entrance for the Aug. 6 anniversary. The other memorial will be dedicated Sept. 14 in the nearby town of Huntington.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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