CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The US Department of Labor filed an unprecedented federal lawsuit yesterday seeking to close a mine operated by troubled coal producer Massey Energy Co. for continually violating safety laws.
The Labor Department has never sought an injunction to protect coal miners before, but is considering several more lawsuits, Patricia Smith, the agency's solicitor, said during a conference call.
Yesterday's lawsuit marks the latest step by the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration to crack down on dangerous mines. Massey has 21 days to respond.
The agency has been targeting mines with poor safety records since an explosion killed 29 miners at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia on April 5. The blast was the deadliest at a US coal mine in 40 years and is the subject of criminal and civil investigations.
The lawsuit seeks to close Massey subsidiary Freedom Energy's Mine Number 1 in Pike County, Ky., until the company fixes violations and comes up with a way to prevent them in the future. The lawsuit asks that employees continue to be paid while the mine is offline.
"This is the mine that we believe is one accident away from a possible tragedy,'' Smith said.
MSHA said it has issued more than 2,000 citations and orders closing sections of the mine since July 2008 and injuries have been rising, though Smith said the government doesn't trust Massey's figures.
"We're not just looking at the injury rates, especially in this situation. My understanding is that Massey reported to its own shareholders that it underreports injury rates by approximately 37 percent,'' she said.
Agency officials describe Freedom as a mine fraught with hazards, including poor ventilation.
"The conditions at this mine are the result of a total disregard for basic mine maintenance and safety,'' David Ison, a regional official of the mine safety agency, wrote in one document.
In February, the agency found an improperly hung ventilation curtain was allowing methane to accumulate. The gas eventually hit 13 percent of the atmosphere in part of the mine - well within the explosive range of 5 percent to 15 percent.
"It is my belief that the levels of methane that occurred on February 4, 2010, may occur at any time in this mine if the operator does not pay close attention to ventilation issues,'' agency official Stevie Justice wrote in another document.