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Coal mine giant Massey Energy has decided to close an underground mine in Kentucky. As we first reported a month ago, Massey's Freedom Number One Mine in Pike County was considered so dangerous that the Labor Department asked a federal court to supervise it. That's an unprecedented move.
Today, Massey confirmed it was closing the mine on its own.
NPR's Howard Berkes reports.
HOWARD BERKES: Massey Energy disclosed the closure of the Freedom mine in a statement to NPR. It says some of Freedom's 130 miners will stay on the job dismantling and removing equipment. The rest of the workers will go to other mines. The company says it still believes Freedom is a safe coal mine, but its age and size are challenges.
Massey also said it tried to reduce safety violations with its own unannounced internal inspections, extensive new training and new safety personnel.
Ms. CELESTE MONFORTON (Mine Safety Expert, George Washington University): There's no doubt based on the record there at the mine that this was an extremely dangerous place for miners to work.
BERKES: Celeste Monforton is a mine safety expert at George Washington University and part of an independent team investigating the deadly April disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, which is also owned by Massey.
Ms. MONFORTON: Clearly, this was not a mine that was viable in terms of being able to produce coal safely and provide a safe work environment.
BERKES: Monforton bases that on the 2,000 safety violations issued by federal regulators in the last two years. Since August, Freedom has had eight serious rock falls, according to federal records. One would have killed two miners if a power outage hadn't kept them away. So the Labor Department decided to use its toughest enforcement tool.
For the first time ever, it took the company and the mine to federal court, asking a judge to essentially seize the mine and force managers to pay more attention to safety.
Mr. TONY OPPEGARD (Lawyer): The company closing the mine is a recognition that they can't operate the mine safely.
BERKES: Tony Oppegard is a former mine safety regulator who now represents miners suing mining companies. He worries that Massey Energy will blame excessive regulation for the Freedom shutdown and the resulting risk to 130 jobs.
Massey has been severely critical of the Mine Safety and Health Administration in its oversight of coal mines. But Oppegard defends the agency's focus on Freedom.
Mr. OPPEGARD: There's untold suffering that results when there's a mine disaster and it's certainly preferable for a mine that can't be operated safely to be closed rather than risking a disaster.
BERKES: Despite Massey's closure of Freedom, a federal judge today set a hearing for a preliminary injunction next month. The Labor Department says it will continue to seek federal court supervision, given the underground work necessary to close the mine. And it will seek federal court injunctions against other dangerous mines.
This experience empowers the agency, says Celeste Monforton.
Ms. MONFORTON: And so I view this as Massey just cutting their losses and too bad that it took all of this significant federal action to have the company come to that same conclusion.
BERKES: Massey Energy declined to describe the financial impact of the shutdown but did say it anticipated the lost coal production in its recent economic forecast for next year.
Howard Berkes, NPR News.
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