MSHA Sues Aracoma Coal for Alleged Refusal to Cooperate with Inquiry

June 20, 2006
Federal mine safety investigators are suing one of the nation's largest mine companies to coerce the firm to turn over documents and other evidence pertinent to a fatal West Virginia mine fire that killed two miners in January.

Investigators from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) filed a 138-page complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia against the Aracoma Coal Co. Inc., a subsidiary of Massey Energy Co. The lawsuit states that the mine company has flat-out refused to cooperate with MSHA in producing documents and other evidence relevant to mine management authority, mine ventilation, possible previous fires or similar events and mine construction projects.

MSHA states in the lawsuit that it wants a federal judge to force Massey to provide the documents relevant to the investigation.

"This is the first time MSHA has been faced with a broad refusal by a mine operator to provide relevant documents in an investigation and, subsequently, the first time that this kind of civil action against a mine operator has been necessary," said David Dye, MSHA's acting administrator.

According to MSHA, Massey's responses to MSHA's repeated requests of a number of documents that could shed light on the Jan. 19 mine fire have been "slow, and, in some instances, non-existent."

In a letter sent by MSHA to Massey's attorneys on May 26, a deadline of June 9 was set for Massey to supply previously requested documents and physical evidence, which Massey did not meet.

Massey responded June 16 that the additional documents requested were outside the scope of the MSHA authority. The company, which is the fourth largest U.S. coal producer, said it has already provided more than 13,000 pages of documentation during a 6-month-long investigation.

"Massey has cooperated with MSHA and in return, has requested feedback on MSHA's findings in order to utilize these findings to further improve miner safety. MSHA has declined to provide feedback," the Virginia-based company said in a statement.

Aracoma Hit with 100-Plus Violations

MSHA's investigation stems from a Jan. 19 fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine.

The fire started along a conveyor belt that carries coal to the surface. Most of the miners were able to escape, but two succumbed to the dense smoke and suffocated.

State and federal investigators have not disclosed the cause of the fire, but they have issued more than 100 violations against the mine since the investigation began.

The Aracoma Alma fire occurred shortly after 12 miners died as the result of an explosion at the Sago Mine near Tallmansville, W.Va. The two incidents helped trigger state and federal officials to craft tougher mine safety measures, including a federal bill signed into law earlier this month by President Bush that requires miners to carry a 2-hour emergency supply of oxygen.

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