The Labor Department wants a federal court judge in Kentucky to issue a rare injunction against a Kentucky coal mine accused of warning miners underground about a surprise federal mine safety inspection.
The inspectors for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) allege in court documents that a June 17 late-night, surprise inspection at CAM Mining's #28 mine in Pike County, Ky., was thwarted by mine managers.
The Labor Department seeks an injunction that would prohibit anyone at CAM #28 from issuing advance warnings of surprise inspections. Violating such an injunction could result in a contempt-of-court order, which could include jail time and/or fines.
The inspectors say they staged the inspection after a complaint from a miner that workers underground were using smoking materials. The Labor Department complaint in U.S. District Court in Kentucky says smoking and the use of lighters underground has caused four major mine explosions and 24 deaths since 1977.
"Smoking materials present a grave danger to miners working in any mine, but particularly so in a mine that has both a history of methane liberation and hydrocarbon ignitions," the complaint says. "Any flame produced during the lighting of a cigarette is sufficient to cause an explosion that could kill every person working in the vicinity and potentially any person working underground."
The Labor Department says CAM Mine #28 has a history of explosive levels of methane and hydrocarbons.
CAM's parent company, Rhino Resource Partners, has not responded to NPR's request for comment. The Labor Department also has yet to comment.
Advance notice of surprise mine safety inspections gained attention during the investigation of last year's explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia. 29 miners died April 5, 2010, and a Massey security chief was indicted for allegedly ordering guards to call miners underground when MSHA inspectors arrived.
Coal miners have told NPR and Congress that advance warnings were common at Massey Energy and in the industry.
MSHA responded in August with tough talk about a crackdown on the practice.
"It's not only illegal, it's reprehensible," said Joe Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, in a written statement in August. "Mining personnel who give advance notice are showing contempt for the law and for the safety and health of miners."
NPR's review of federal records finds that attempts to thwart mine safety inspections have resulted in as few as three other attempts to seek federal court injunctions. That's since 1977, when that option became part of mine safety law.
MSHA and the Labor Department have been criticized since the Upper Big Branch explosion for failing to use their toughest enforcement tools, including the ability to haul mining companies into federal court.
We've asked the agencies why they sought a federal court injunction, instead of an indictment, in the CAM #28 case. A spokeswoman says a response may come later today but an injunction would give inspectors the ability to return to the mine relatively quickly to search for any illegal activity. An indictment could take months or years.