The Labor Department has filed for full reinstatement for a coal miner who was fired after complaining about safety at Massey Energy coal mines.
Ricky Lee Campbell of Beckley, W.Va., is a witness in the federal criminal investigation that grew out of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in April that left 29 mine workers dead.
Campbell was interviewed by FBI agents and testified before a federal grand jury about an incident in February in which an Upper Big Branch supervisor ordered an electrician to disable a methane monitor on a continuous mining machine.
Several witnesses, including the electrician, have confirmed Campbell's account of the incident and have also been called to testify.
Campbell's role in the federal investigation was cited by the Labor Department when it first filed a whistle-blower complaint on his behalf. But the agency removed that claim from the case just before a June hearing. Labor Department attorney Samuel Charles Lord declined to comment at the time, but the move prevented Massey Energy from trying to learn details about the federal investigation in its questioning of Campbell.
The Labor Department won temporary reinstatement of pay and benefits for Campbell in a June administrative court ruling. That decision was based on claims that he had been fired from his job at a Massey Energy coal mine because he told reporters about general safety problems at Upper Big Branch. Campbell also complained to mine managers at another Massey mine about safety problems there.
Campbell worked at Upper Big Branch until shortly before the April 5 explosion. He started his job at the Slip Ridge Cedar Grove mine the day of the blast and was fired three weeks later.
Massey Energy says Campbell's dismissal was justified. In a June court hearing in the case, the company said its supervisors were not aware of the news stories that quoted Campbell. Massey suggested that Campbell was responsible for damaging equipment.
Campbell testified that he repeatedly warned supervisors about brake and pedal problems on the buggy cars he drove to transport coal underground. The cars were damaged in collisions Campbell blamed on failed brakes.
The Labor Department's new action in the case seeks full back pay, a civil penalty and a permanent return to work.
Federal law protects coal miners from retaliation for safety complaints. Raising safety concerns is considered a federally protected right in coal mines.
"We want to send a clear message that operators who punish employees for expressing concerns about safety conditions should be held accountable for their actions," said Joe Main, assistant secretary for mine safety and health, in a written statement in response to the Labor Department's filing.