Coal Mine Safety Enforcement Case Settled The Labor Department's use of its toughest enforcement tool has resulted in a court-supervised settlement with coal mine giant Massey Energy, giving the federal court jurisdiction over Massey's Freedom Mine.
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Landmark Coal Mine Safety Enforcement Case Settled

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Landmark Coal Mine Safety Enforcement Case Settled

Landmark Coal Mine Safety Enforcement Case Settled

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

There's a settlement in a landmark legal case involving the Labor Department and the coal mine giant Massey Energy. The caseļæ½involves Massey's Freedom Mine number one in Pike County, Kentucky. The Labor Department considers the mine too dangerous to operate without federal court supervision and it sought a federal court injunction against the mine. But today, Massey Energy agreed to unprecedented oversight.

And our correspondent, Howard Berkes, has been following the case as part of an ongoing NPR News investigation.

HOWARD BERKES: The Freedom mine amassed hundreds of safety violations, citations and fines for dangerous rock falls, for too much explosive coal dust, for failure to conduct safety inspections. It's a long list. Massey Energy continued to claim it put safety first at Freedom and its other mines, even after an April explosion killed 29 Massey miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia.

That disaster prompted the Labor Department to do something it had never done before - drag a coal mine company into federal court to force attention to safety. Freedom was the test case.

Mr. ED CLAIR (Retired Lawyer, Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration): I think that the settlement agreement is everything that the government could have hoped to achieve through the court action.

BERKES: Ed Clair is a retired lawyer for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and he finds the settlement remarkable.

Mr. CLAIR: It gives them incredible enforcement powers that they didn't have prior to this agreement.

BERKES: That includes federal court jurisdiction over the mine with contempt citations possible if Massey Energy fails to make the mines safe. The mine's most senior managers must be directly involved in safety procedures and are personally responsible for violations. Miners continue to have paychecks and jobs if all or parts of the mine are shut down while safety problems are fixed. And shutdowns and fixes are immediate when unsafe conditions are spotted.

Patricia Smith is the solicitor of the Labor Department.

Ms. PATRICIA SMITH (Solicitor, Labor Department): Almost all of the provisions in this order impose requirements upon Massey that are above and beyond the normal requirements of the law. We got really serious requirements that we wouldn't have had under an administrative proceeding and really nothing less than we would've asked the court for.

BERKES: Massey Energy may have agreed to all that because it is already in the process of closing the mine for good. The settlement is supposed to protect the 60 or so mine workers who will spend the next several months dismantling and removing equipment.

Massey officials did not agree to be interviewed, but said in a written statement that they're pleased to have the matter resolved and felt the best course of action was to cooperate with the government. Mine safety advocates say the settlement shows that going to court works.

Wes Addington directs the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center in Whitesburg, Kentucky.

Mr. WES ADDINGTON (Director, Appalachian Citizens' Law Center): It's shown now that they're entitled to go into federal court and seek immediate relief for miners that are in immediate danger, and they should use this. They should use it going forward to protect miners in a more immediate way.

BERKES: Labor Department solicitor Smith said today more cases are possible. The settlement came just as the Freedom mine trial was set to begin. Court documents indicate Massey's production practices would've been on trial and compared with the company's persistent claims about safety. But mine safety advocates say that day is coming, given the ongoing investigations into the Upper Big Branch disaster and problematic safety records at some of Massey's other mines.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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