In December, a Need to Know Watch List segment investigated the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, an explosion that killed 29 miners at a Massey Energy-run coal mine in West Virginia last April. Today, the government reached a settlement with Massey Energy that Department of Labor officials hope will prevent similar disasters.
The story of this settlement begins at a different Massey operation, the Freedom Energy mine in Kentucky. After last April’s West Virginia disaster, the Mine Safety and Health Administration began monitoring mines that were found to have repeatedly violated safety regulations. As a result of that effort, officials demanded that Massey shut down the mine in Kentucky — an operation they deemed so dangerous it required federal supervision.
“This is a mine that presented a pattern of either falling down or blowing up,” M. Patricia Smith, the solicitor of Department of Labor, said in a conference call with reporters this afternoon. Her comments echoed those by Mine Safety and Health director Joseph A. Main in a press release last November, when the lawsuit was first filed.
“Freedom Energy has demonstrated time and again that it cannot be trusted to follow basic safety rules when an MSHA inspector is not at the mine,” Main said at the time. “If the court does not step in, someone may be seriously injured or die.”
The lawsuit marked the Department of Labor’s first-ever use of the decades old “injunctive relief” section of federal mining law, which allows the government to intervene to protect miners working in unsafe conditions. In response to the lawsuit, Massey Energy announced that, even though they considered the Kentucky mine safe, they would shut it down.
The resulting settlement, announced today, seeks to protect about sixty Freedom Energy workers during the eight months Massey expects it will take to dismantle the company’s equipment and close the mine. The agreement places the operation under the supervision of a federal judge, who is empowered to cite any of the mine’s managers for contempt of court should they fail to comply with safety procedures.
The settlement also allows Massey to avoid a trial, scheduled to begin today, in which the Department of Labor and the Mine Safety and Health Administration were expected to reveal detailed evidence that Massey repeatedly emphasized production over safety, putting the lives of Freedom Energy workers at risk. The mine accrued more than 700 safety violations this year alone.
Smith said that mining companies who repeatedly violate regulations might see more government injunctions in the future. “We’re going to use it when we think it’s appropriate to use,” she said, hinting that MSHA was “looking at one other mine.”
Massey Energy did not return calls seeking comment.