The agency said Wednesday afternoon that its motion, filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, outlined that the Pike County operation was engaged in a pattern of violation of the mandatory health and safety standards of the Mine Act, constituting a continuous hazard.
The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, Section 108(a)(2), provides for injunctive relief against noncompliant mine operators that habitually violate health and safety standards.
“Freedom Energy is engaged in a pattern of failing to examine and maintain critical areas of its mining operations as evidenced by the quantity and gravity of violations in four critical spheres of safety: failure to clear the mine of excessive accumulations of coal dust; failure to protect the roof, face and ribs from falls and maintain an effective roof control plan; failure to test and maintain electrical equipment in a safe working condition so as to protect against fire or explosion; and failure to effectively ventilate the mine of noxious and explosive gases,” MSHA said.
Freedom Energy Mine No. 1, according to the agency, is in a particularly dangerous coal seam that liberates methane at the rate of approximately 1.8 million cubic feet every 24 hours.
The operation is also prone to roof falls; in fact, seven miners have been injured at the mine from roof fall incidents in the last two years. Since August 11 of this year, six major roof falls have occurred in the mine.
MSHA issued 1952 citations and 81 orders to the mine between July 2008 and June 2010 over the course of eight regular federal inspections. So far this year, the operation has received 53 (d)(2) orders for violations of critical safety standards, including improper ventilation, roof support failures, failure to clean up combustible materials, electrical maintenance failures, and a failure to conduct the necessary examination of work areas.
“On numerous occasions, MSHA district office officials have attempted to resolve serious safety issues at Freedom Energy, including meetings with upper mine management over recurring roof problems, ventilation and dust control issues, accumulations, electrical equipment maintenance and inadequate examinations,” the agency said.
“The inspections, citations and meetings with mine management have not resulted in changes in behavior. As such, MSHA is compelled to use its statutory authority to ask the federal court to temporarily shut down the mine until the safety issues are addressed.”
Should the court grant MSHA’s motion as it is proposed, Freedom Energy will be ordered to temporarily close until specific actions can be performed.
“Freedom must correct all hazardous conditions in its mine and establish a health and safety management program for approval by MSHA before resuming production,” it said.
“Under its safety and health management program it must, among other things, establish an effective training and communications program; ensure that high-level mine officials conduct additional examinations; take additional air readings in critical areas; withdraw all miners when violations are found and pay miners who are idled by such withdrawals.”
MSHA assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health Joseph Main said Freedom had repeatedly demonstrated that it could not be “trusted to follow basic safety rules” without the presence of a federal inspector.
“If the court does not step in, someone may be seriously injured or die,” he said.
“Although this is the first time the department has utilized this legal remedy, it will not be the last,” solicitor of labor M Patricia Smith added.
“The solicitor’s office will work closely with MSHA to ensure that we use every tool possible to keep miners safe.”
Massey responded to the action late Wednesday, saying that it did not believe the mine was unsafe.
“The Freedom Energy mine is an older mine with extensive underground workings [and] the operation has struggled to comply with newer MSHA standards,” the company said.
The complex underwent additional scrutiny during Massey’s recent internally conducted safety stand-down, including a visit from chairman and chief executive Don Blankenship.
While the producer said it felt the mine was operating safety, it is considering its next move.
“Due to the mine’s age and size, the company is considering idling the mine until it can ensure that the mine will meet current MSHA standards,” Massey said.
“Should [we] decide to idle the mine, every effort will be made to reassign the miners to nearby locations.”