For the first time in the agency’s history, the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) went to federal court to ask that a dangerous coal mine be shut down until it fixes its safety problems once and for all. In its official complaint to the U.S.district court for the eastern district of Kentucky, the agency refers to Section 108(a)(2) saying:
Massey Energy’s Freedom Mine #1 is “engaged in a pattern of violation of mandatory health and safety standards that, in the Secretary’s judgment, constitute a continuing hazard to the health or safety of miners.”
MSHA’s new release announcing the action says that since August 11, 2010, there have been SIX major roof falls at the mine, and over the last two years, seven miners have been injured from these types of collapses. These incidents are not just a little shale sloughing off the mine roof. A fall on September 22 near an active work section measured 250 feet x 18 feet x 9 feet! Miraculously, no one was injured.
Equally telling (and very troubling) is the mine’s recent history of safety violations. From July 2008 through June 2010, MSHA inspectors have issued 1,952 citations for violating standards related to ventilation, roof support, accumulation of combustible materials, maintenance of electrical equipment, and more. In what other industry is a company allowed to have 2,000 violations of anything? I was on a plane last Saturday scheduled to travel from Wash, DC to Austin, and the crew was prohibited from even shutting the cabin door because the chiming system related to the seatbelt sign was on the fritz. Hopefully this move by MSHA will get us on a new path of intolerance for chronic violators of worker safety standards.
National Public Radio’s Howard Berkes covers this MSHA action in depth and uses some of the declarations of federal mine inspectors to explain their level of frustration with Freedom Mine’s managers. An MSHA asst. manager in Pikeville, KY James Poynter notes:
we “continue to find serious and threatening conditions at this mine….mine officials promised the district that they were implementing safety controls that would bring the mine into compliance. These promises have not yet been fulfilled.”
Another declaration notes that inspectors identified levels of methane in one working section that reached 15%—-the gas is explosive in the 5-15% range! Most coal miners start to get nervous when methane levels reach 1.5-2.0%
Under the current law, if a mine is temporarily shut down because of a safety problem, the mine workers are entitled to their regular rate of pay, but for no more than four additional hours beyond the work shift in which they were idled. In its proposed order, the Labor Department is asking the judge to approve continuing pay for the
“affected miners for any time period such miners are idled due to such closure.”
I applaud MSHA for insisting on compensation for these coal miners while the company figures out a way to make the mine run right each and every shift.
NPR’s Howard Berkes obtained an internal MSHA document suggesting this action against the Freedom mine has been in the works since at least June 2010. The Solicitor of Labor remarked today that court action against other habitual safety offenders are in the works. I’m sure there are lots of i’s to dot and t’s to cross, but the sooner action is taken against those other mines, the better.