MSHA Appeals Judge's Decision in Martin County Case

MSHA is appealing of the two key rulings of an administrative law judge who dismissed one $55,000 MSHA citation outright and cut another $55,000 fine by 90 percent another $55,000 fine proposed against Martin County Coal Corp. for its role in an impoundment breakthrough in Kentucky.

On Oct. 11, 2000, the Big Branch Slurry Impoundment near Inez, Ky., released more than 300 million gallons of coal slurry into the Big Sandy River, a tributary of the Ohio River. MSHA claimed the violations that led to the breakthrough endangered miners in an underground coal mine located underneath the impoundment and released coal sludge and water, which damaged property and polluted water supplies in Kentucky and West Virginia.

MSHA investigated the accident and issued its report on Oct. 17, 2001. The agency found two violations of MSHA standards that led to the spill. The agency proposed the maximum penalty of $55,000 for each of the two violations.

"In keeping with the administration's effort to assess meaningful civil monetary penalties for mine safety violations, we must petition the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission to review the judge's decision," said Dave D. Lauriski, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. "We do not think the dismissal of one of the key citations and the 90 percent reduction of the penalty against Martin County Coal Corp. for the other is justified."

The DOL appeal says Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission Administrative Law Judge Irwin Schroeder erred in dismissing a number of violations against Martin County Coal Corp. and its contractor, Geo/Environmental Associates. Schroeder issued his decision on Jan. 14, saying that MSHA had not proved one of the alleged key violations against Martin County Coal Corp. He also said the other violation was not an "unwarrantable failure in the sense of wanton or reckless disregard for the risks to life and property" and that the proposed maximum penalty was "excessive under the circumstances."

The DOL contends the judge erred in dismissing the one key violation and in finding that the other key violation was not an "unwarrantable failure" and should have been assessed only a $5,500 penalty. Additionally, the appeal states that the judge misapplied established legal principles throughout his decision.

In October 2003, Martin County Coal Corp. agreed to pay West Virginia a fine of $600,000. The state alleged the slurry contaminated water in the Big Sandy River, which flows into West Virginia, killed wildlife and fish, and contaminated drinking water in the state. West Virginia alleged the company was negligent for failing to fix problems discovered after a smaller, similar spill in 1994.

In 2002, Martin County Coal Corp. reached an agreement with Kentucky, where the spill occurred, to pay $1.75 million in civil penalties, $1 million in damages to the environment, and $500,000 for costs incurred by the cleanup.

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