WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Federal safety officials were negligent in their approval of work plans for a Utah coal mine that collapsed in August 2007, leaving nine dead, a Labor Department report concluded Monday.
An Emery County sheriff walks by six yellow ribbons of hope at the Crandall Canyon mine in August 2007.
The report does not reach conclusions about the cause of the collapse at the Crandall Canyon mine, which killed six miners and three would-be rescuers. But it found officials of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration could not demonstrate the agency did "everything appropriate" to protect workers when it approved a plan for the risky mining technique used at the site.
That technique, known as "retreat mining," is a process in which pillars of coal that support the roof of a mine chamber are removed one by one, allowing the roof to collapse behind miners. Investigators were concerned the mine operator pressured officials for permission to use the process.
"MSHA's actions and inactions, taken as a whole, lead us to conclude that [the administration] lacked care and attention in fulfilling its responsibilities to protect miners," the Labor Department inspector general's office reported.
"MSHA could not show how it analyzed roof control plans, the criteria it measured the plans against, the rationale for approving the plans, that the plans were properly implemented or that the plans continued to protect miners over time. These deficiencies evidence the agency's serious and systemic lack of diligence in protecting miners, and we do not believe it is misleading to use the term 'negligent.' "
In a written response, Mine Safety and Health Administration chief Richard Stickler objected to the use of the term negligent and any suggestion that mine operator Murray Energy had pressured the agency into approving retreat mining at Crandall Canyon.
An inspector for the Bureau of Land Management, which leased the site to Murray Energy, wrote a July 2007 report that raised concerns about signs of stress on roof pillars at Crandall Canyon.
"So far no inordinate pillar stresses have been noted, though thing(s) should get interesting soon," said the Bureau of Land Management report, filed less than a month before the collapse.
The agency, which oversees federal lands across the West, and the Mine Safety and Health Administration are not required to share inspection information -- "however, they should have," the inspector-general's report said.
The bodies of the dead miners were not recovered, and the mine was closed after the deaths.
In the days after the August 6, 2007, cave-in, mine owner Bob Murray repeatedly denied his company practiced retreat mining at Crandall Canyon. He later said the practice had been used at the mine, but said it was not being done at the time of the collapse.
There was no immediate response to the report from Murray Energy.
Investigators raised concerns that company officials had pressured the administration to speed its review of their mining plans, citing internal documents and e-mails from the Ohio-based firm. In one message, sent two days before the agency approved retreat mining plans for one part of the mine, an unnamed Murray Energy official wrote that "I have a fire my under my a-- to get this approved. I need your help."
Stickler wrote that auditors were unable to back up those implications of undue pressure in their report. But Monday's report said it does not imply that conclusion -- it said only that regulators can't show any documents to prove they weren't wrongly influenced by Murray Energy.
"As a regulatory agency, MSHA must be able to show that its decisions are not influenced by those it regulates and that they are sound based on rigorous, established and documented processes and criteria," the report said.
The report was requested by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, led by Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy. A March 6 report by that committee said the administration missed "significant flaws" in engineering reports on the mine, and that Murray Energy "ignored substantial evidence of instability during mining operations" and failed to report dangerous conditions to inspectors.
The report also questioned the decision by Stickler, the assistant labor secretary for mine safety, to let a CNN crew and two relatives of the trapped men into the mine to record rescue efforts. Local Mine Safety and Health Administration officials warned against the move, the report said, but Stickler told investigators he did not recall any objections.
Rep. George Miller, D-California, noted that mine inspectors considered the safety training given to journalists and relatives "fast and not so good," and said Stickler "should better explain that decision, which may have put people's lives at risk unnecessarily."
Miller is the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, which conducted its own investigation of the Crandall Canyon accident. E-mail to a friend