Coal miners working underground were warned in advance of a search for cigarettes and lighters at a Pikeville mine with a history of methane gas leaks, federal officials said in a court filing.
Federal inspectors had planned to search CAM Mining’s No. 28 mine after receiving a tip about miners smoking underground.
U. S. Labor Department officials said in a motion filed in federal court in Kentucky June 23 that workers were warned by the coal operator despite attempts by inspectors to approach underground working areas undetected.
Officials were concerned a lighter’s flame could ignite a deadly explosion, court records said.
“Any flame produced during the lighting of a cigarette is suffi cient to cause an explosion that could kill every person working in the vicinity and potentially any person working underground,” the motion said.
The motion in U.S. District Court was filed under a littleused provision in federal mine safety law that allows regulators to seek an injunction from a federal judge. If the injunction request is approved, the mine would be brought under the jurisdiction of the judge to ensure the mine follows the law.
Labor Department officials seek “to ensure that defendant obeys the law as it is written and nothing more,” the motion said.
Typically, enforcement actions are handled by administrative law judges in less formal proceedings than a U.S. District Court.
The tougher provision was used by regulators for the first time last year against a Massey Energyowned mine in Pike County. The company later voluntarily closed down the Freedom Energy No. 1 mine, which had repeated instances of methane gas leaks, venting problems and roof collapses.
Federal officials said since the federal Mine Safety and Health Act was passed in 1977, there have been four major mine explosions blamed on smoking. The blasts killed a total of 24 miners, including a 1981 explosion that killed 13 at a Grundy Mining Co. mine in Whitewell, Tenn., court documents said. It was ignited by a cigarette lighter.
Underground operations at the CAM No. 28 mine had encountered “ high methane gas levels” in weeks prior to the June 17 inspection, according to an affi davit filed by Anthony Burke, an eastern Kentucky field inspector with the Mine Safety and Health Administration.