Lawsuits settled in 2007 Crandall Canyon disaster

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The owner and operator of Utah's Crandall Canyon mine on Tuesday settled lawsuits filed by the families of the miners and rescuers who were killed or injured by two cave-ins in 2007.

The settlement -- the largest in Utah mining history -- was signed by lawyers for the defendants and the families of the 12 men who were killed or injured.

Six miners were trapped by a thunderous collapse at Crandall Canyon on Aug. 6, 2007. Another collapse 10 days later killed three rescuers, including a federal mining inspector, and injured three others.

Terms of the settlement were not disclosed, but lawyers on both sides said it exceeded the more than $20 million paid to families of 27 victims of a 1984 fire at the closed Wilberg mine in the same Utah coal district.

"They were very difficult negotiations. All parties were surprised we were able to reach a resolution," said Alan Mortensen, a lawyer for families of the trapped miners and some of the rescuers. "It eased some of the tension and anger that was expressed early on against the companies."

Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp. subsidiary UtahAmerican Energy Inc. said the settlement resolved costly and challenging technical issues and heads off an expensive trial.

"The geomechanics of coal mining under a mountain are extremely complex and difficult to assess," said Jason W. Hardin, a lawyer for UtahAmerican. "No one may ever know what actually caused those accidents."

Four other companies linked to the mine's operation were part of the settlement, plus six insurance companies and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

The other companies were two other Murray Energy affiliates that operated and held the lease on the Crandall Canyon mine; mining consultants Agapito Associates Inc. of Grand Junction, Colo.; and mine co-owner Intermountain Power Agency.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power holds an ownership interest in a coal-fired power station in Utah that took coal from Crandall Canyon and is a partner with Intermountain Power Agency.

"This really was a phenomenal accomplishment, to get a case of this magnitude resolved this early," said Kevin Anderson, another UtahAmerican lawyer. "It doesn't reflect that we were afraid of losing. It reflects the companies' interest in trying to get past this event."

The mining companies could hold out the settlement as a reason for U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman to close a criminal investigation into the disaster without seeking charges. In an interview in February, Tolman told The Associated Press that some aspects of the Crandall Canyon disaster were better resolved by civil litigation.

But Tolman's spokeswoman, Melodie Rydalch, said Tuesday, "I don't think anyone would say (the settlement) absolves all possible criminal liability."

Tolman's investigation is expected to take several more months. He has said he was looking into allegations by federal regulators -- vigorously denied by the company -- that mine managers misrepresented early warning signs of danger at the central Utah mine.

Coal pillars started unexpectedly collapsing as early as March 2007, according to a report filed by a panel of experts for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration last summer.

Murray Energy and its lawyers have taken strong exception to the accusation the company didn't report a collapse that month that led it to abandon a section of the mine. Other government reports say MSHA was given enough information about the devastating but nonlethal collapse on March 10, but failed to act or even inspect the damage.

Satellite radar images of the deadly August 2007 collapse indicate a 69-acre section of the mine caved in -- the equivalent of 63 football fields without the end zones. For sheer destruction, federal regulators said they found no other U.S. mining disaster to compare to it.

"It was the biggest bounce we've ever seen," MSHA's coal-mining boss, Kevin Stricklin, told the AP in an interview last month. "We've never seen anything like it." Regulators say they know of no technology that could allow anyone to safely re-enter the mine to recover the bodies of Kerry Allred, 58; Don Erickson, 50; Luis Hernandez, 23; Carlos Payan, 22; Brandon Phillips, 24; and Manuel Sanchez, 42.

Another cave-in killed three members of a crew boring through rubble toward the trapped men. The bodies of the rescuers -- Dale "Bird" Black, 48; Brandon Kimber, 29; and Gary Jensen, 53, an MSHA accident investigator -- were recovered.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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