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 admitted it took down a barrier of coal that was supposed to be left standing to hold up the mine. That barrier, however, was in different part of the mine from another section that collapse 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 they lacked evidence of criminal intent on the part of company officials and felt the misdemeanors were the only charges they could prove.
"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 would fine Genwal. $1.6 million and engineers Agapito Associates Inc. of Grand Junction, Colo., $220,000 after the resolution of the criminal investigation. Federal officials have said it is the largest fines ever imposed on a U.S. coal mining operation.