November 3, 2010
Contact:
Anna Christopher, NPR


   

NPR NEWS EXCLUSIVE: LABOR DEPARTMENT SEEKS COURT-ORDERED SHUTDOWN OF MASSEY ENERGY MINE IN KENTUCKY

MINE CITED FOR MORE THAN 700 SAFETY VIOLATIONS IN 2010; CONSIDERED TOO DANGEROUS TO OPERATE WITHOUT COURT SUPERVISION

NPR News has learned that the Labor Department is seeking an unprecedented federal court injunction that would shutdown a Massey Energy coal mine in Kentucky considered too dangerous to operate without a judge's intervention. Correspondent Howard Berkes reports that Massey's Freedom Mine #1 in Pike County in Kentucky, which employs about 130 miners, has been cited for 700 safety violations this year alone, with more than 200 considered serious and substantial. Massey also owns the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia where 29 workers died in a massive explosion on April 5.

The complete report from Berkes is available now at NPR.org, and will air later today on All Things Considered (find local stations and broadcast times at www.npr.org/stations). Audio will be available at NPR.org at approximately 7PM (ET).

In documents filed today in federal court, the Labor Department seeks a preliminary injunction placing the mine under court supervision and shutting it down until persistent safety hazards are fixed and Massey Energy demonstrates it can operate the mine safely. The mine "has a high risk level for a fatal accident…on any given day," according to a supporting court document submitted by James Poynter, the Assistant District Manager for the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in Pikeville, Kentucky. This is the first time the Labor Department has exercised this authority – which it's had for more than three decades – to take mining companies to federal court when they have serious and persistent safety violations.

Berkes reports that the Freedom Mine has had a history of serious and repeated safety violations, and has been on MSHA’s radar for some time. Four months ago, in an internal agency e-mail obtained by NPR, MSHA coal mine safety chief Kevin Stricklin wrote of Freedom: "We need to use this mine as a test case."

Fifty of the mine's 700 safety citations, violations and orders this year are listed as "unwarrantable failures" – meaning failure to remedy a known problem. According to court documents and state and federal records, Berkes reports, the safety violations involve accumulations of flammable and explosive coal dust, the threat of rock falls, problems with ventilation or air flow in the mine, hazardous electrical equipment, spotting and recording dangers, and emergency evacuation procedures.

Berkes has been covering mining safety as part of an ongoing NPR News investigation into the explosion at Upper Big Branch and its aftermath. All archived reports are available at NPR.org.