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Landmark Coal Mine Safety Enforcement Case Settled

SHARE Landmark Coal Mine Safety Enforcement Case Settled

The Labor Department’s first-ever use of its toughest enforcement tool has resulted in a court-supervised settlement with coal mine giant Massey Energy.

The agreement involves Massey’s Freedom Mine #1 in Pike County, Ky., which is described in court documents as a mine so dangerous it requires court supervision. Freedom was singled out for an unprecedented federal court injunction due to a persistent “pattern of violations” of mine safety law, which “constitutes a continuing hazard to the health or safety of miners.”

Massey Energy denies “the existence of any pattern of violations” but agrees that a U.S. District Court has jurisdiction over Freedom and can apply sanctions, including contempt of court citations, if the company fails to follow a prescribed safety plan.

Massey Energy tells NPR the company “is pleased to have resolved the matter.”

“We felt the best course of action was to cooperate with MSHA and jointly develop a plan for our coal miners to safely close the Freedom Energy mine,” says Shane Harvey, Massey’s vice president and general counsel. “We appreciate MSHA’s input and cooperation on the plan” that is outlined in the settlement.

The settlement prevents a three-day hearing that was scheduled to begin today. The hearing was expected to include internal Massey documents and former Massey mine workers and officials. The documents and testimony would have focused on production pressure at the company as the mine amassed hundreds of safety violations, citations and fines.

Massey has been under intense public and regulatory scrutiny since an explosion at its Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia last April. Twenty-nine miners died in the blast, which is still the subject of criminal and civil investigations.

The Labor Department dusted off the never-used, 33-year-old “injunctive relief” section of federal mining law as part of the Obama administration’s promised “get-tough” response to the Upper Big Branch disaster. Freedom was selected as a first test case.

When the agency filed the case in November, Massey announced it would close the mine anyway, citing ongoing challenges in operating a mine as large and old as Freedom. Federal Judge Amul Thapar refused to dismiss the case, ruling that about 60 mine workers could still be exposed to dangerous conditions underground during the several months it would take to dismantle and remove equipment from the mine.

The settlement details safety precautions Massey must take to protect those workers. The mine is susceptible to dangerous rock falls and explosive concentrations of methane gas. If new safety violations force closure of all or part of the mine the company must continue to pay workers, or find them other jobs within 60 miles, until the mine is considered safe.

Labor Department officials have repeatedly promised to seek federal court injunctions against other coal mines but the agency has yet to file another case.

Assistant Labor Secretary Joe Main declined to comment on the settlement when asked about it during a conference call with reporters this morning on the 2011 legislative agenda for the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Main said he needed time to review the final language of the settlement and would comment later. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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