SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A federal judge said Wednesday he was outraged over a plea deal that settles criminal charges against the operator of a Utah coal mine that experienced two lethal cave-ins in 2007 that killed nine people.
U.S. District Judge David Sam said he was surprised to learn federal law didn't provide stiffer penalties against Genwal Resources Inc., an affiliate of Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp., for the disaster that killed six miners and three of their rescuers.
"My initial take on this is outrage at the miniscule amount of penalty," said Sam, addressing widows and other family members of the dead miners in court. "I want them to know I have wavered on whether to accept or reject this plea deal."
After some hesitation, Sam accepted guilty pleas by lawyers for Genwal for a pair of misdemeanors for violating safety standards and ordered the company to pay a $500,000 fine "immediately." No company managers or executives will be charged as a result of the settlement.
The first count accused the company of failing to report a cave-in five months before the lethal collapse.
In the second count, Genwal acknowledged it took down a barrier of coal that was supposed to be left standing to hold up the mine. That barrier, however, was in a different part of the mine from another section that collapsed with such force three days later it initially registered as a 3.9-magnitude earthquake.
The August 2007 collapse killed six miners whose bodies have never been recovered. Another cave-in 10 days later killed two rescuers and a federal inspector. The operation was eventually called off after drilling into the mountain found no sign of the trapped men.
In court Monday, federal prosecutors responded to growing public criticism that the plea deal was too lenient, saying the misdemeanors were the only charges they felt they could prove in court. Lawyers for the miner's families said prosecutors acknowledged privately they lacked evidence of criminal intent on the part of company officials.
"People ask, 'Why isn't there more?' But the application of the law to the facts must result in provable charges," said prosecutor Stewart C. Walz.
At first, Sam indicated he might sit on a decision, but he said any delay would only prolong the families' grief and postpone more substantial fines federal regulators plan to levy for the disaster.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration has said it was waiting for the criminal investigation to conclude before fining Genwal $1.6 million and its mining engineers Agapito Associates Inc. of Grand Junction, Colo., $220,000. Officials have said it would be the largest fines ever levied on a U.S. coal mining operation.
Wednesday brought the first penalties of any kind against Genwal for the disaster — the company was immune from civil suits under worker's compensation laws.
Widows of the miners said they were troubled that federal law prevented prosecutors from holding any company executives or managers accountable.
"The law makes it so they can do anything," said Wendy Black, the wife of a mining foreman who was killed in a rescue operation she maintains was reckless.
Her husband, Dale "Bird" Black, was operating a 65-ton grinding machine that was boring its way through rubble toward the trapped miners. Black took the full brunt of the second cave-in and died instantly, a medical examiner told his widow.
"We can't change anything, but the law needs to be changed," said Kristen Cox, who was an ex-wife of Brandon Kimber, a 29-year-old miner also killed on the rescue team.
Lawyers obtained a substantial civil settlement in 2009 for the families of the miners and rescuers. Terms of that agreement by Murray Energy Corp. subsidiary UtahAmerican Energy Inc. and a string of other companies and insurance companies were never disclosed publicly.
However, lawyers on both sides have 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.
Colin King, one of the families' lawyers, said Genwal "slipped through the cracks" with "minimal criminal sanctions" and has never apologized to the miners' families or accepted fault for the lethal cave-ins.
"We are outraged that Genwal has received no serious sanctions or penalties for killing these nine people and maiming others," he said.
Yet King said prosecutors "realized they would be in for a long fight" by trying to bring more serious charges against executives or managers for Murray Energy or Genwal.
"Some of the key witnesses are dead — or they aren't talking," he said. "Federal law should allow harsher penalties for willful violations of safety laws."