A federal judge has ordered an eastern Kentucky mining concern to stop alerting miners to surprise inspections by federal regulators.
U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove in London issued the order barring Manalapan Mining Co. of Pathfork from warning underground miners, in violation of the federal Mine Safety and Health Act, that inspectors are on site.
The order stems from a series of mine inspections around the country from April 19-23, after the nation’s deadliest coal mining disaster in 40 years, when 29 men died and two were injured at Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia.
The U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees the Mine Safety Health Administration, sued Manalapan Mining in April, saying company employees tipped underground miners that inspectors were on site in an effort to hide noncompliance with mining regulations.
“While the Secretary (of Labor) cannot identify the specific individuals who made the calls, it is clear that only mine employees or agents have access to mine phones, which are all located on mine property,” Van Tatenhove wrote.
Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said in a statement giving miners notice of spot inspections hampers the ability to ensure safe mining practices.
“We cannot do our job if mining companies use such unlawful tactics as calling-ahead to warn of inspections,” Main said. “Advance notice blocks enforcement of the mine safety and health laws that are to protect miners from injury, illness and death.”
John Williams, an attorney for Manalapan Mining, said the company is contesting the citations before the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission and the injuction will stay in place until that issue is resolved.
“As to the injunction itself, like anyone else, Manalapan and Left Fork are obligated to follow the law,” Williams said. “As the judge points out, this injunction requires nothing more than that.”
Williams said he’s hopeful the government will dismiss several company officials as defendants in the lawsuit, now that the injunction is in place.
Federal inspectors visited the Manalapan Mining Co.’s RB No. 12 mine in Harlan County and Left Fork Mining Co.’s Straight Creek No. 1 mine in Bell County on April 19. Left Fork Mining is a subsidiary of Manalapan.
Inspectors at the Straight Creek No. 1 Mine say they heard “someone call from an unknown location to tell the miners inside the mine that six inspectors had the belts shut off ,” according to a statement from Robert Barnes, a federal inspector based in Barbourville, Ky.
Investigator Vince Smith said in court records he heard “a miner talking to another miner underground” about their visit to the RB No. 12 mine. A third inspector, John Sizemore, said he received a call from No. 12 mine’s superintendent David Partin, who was “cursing” over the violations issued at the RB No. 12 mine the day before.
Warning miners of a surprise inspection has become an issue in the investigation into the Upper Big Branch mine explosion. Gary Quarles, whose son, Gary Wayne Quarles died in the explosion in April, told Congress that Massey used codes to warn workers when regulators showed up
After they are warned, workers are expected to do everything possible to quickly correct problems or divert the inspectors’ attention from any issues, Quarles told Congress.
During an inspection blitz after the West Virginia explosion, MSHA cited six Kentucky mines for 238 total violations and gave 55 orders for miners to leave at least portions of mines while safety violations were being repaired. Overall, MSHA said it issued 1,339 citations nationwide during the five-day sweep from April 19 to 23.
MSHA launched the blitz in response to the April 5 disaster at Upper Big Branch mine.
The agency focused the blitz on mines with high numbers of violations in the past and focused on rules covering methane, ventilation and efforts to control coal dust.
Inspectors found more than 70 serious violations at eight Massey operations in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia that were inspected during the blitz, MSHA said. The Richmond, Va.-based company’s safety record has been under renewed scrutiny after the Upper Big Branch explosion. The incident remains the subject of federal and state investigations.