(CN) – The D.C. Circuit ruled that a lower court erred in directing the Labor Department to release reports on a mine collapse that trapped and killed six miners and three rescuers due to pending litigation over the same information.
On Aug. 6, 2007, a collapse at Crandall Canyon Mine, in Emery County, Utah, trapped six miners. Ten days later, three rescue workers were killed while attempting to reach the men. The miners were declared dead and their bodies were never recovered.
The victims’ families claimed that the mine’s owner, UtahAmerican Energy, failed to heed federal officials’ warnings of the hazards of retreat mining, in which miners split support pillars and allow controlled roof collapses as they retreat toward the mine entrance.
The Department of Labor conducted two separate inquiries following the collapse, each resulting in published reports.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), a department agency, investigated the causes of the collapse and whether UtahAmerican had violated any laws or regulations. The department also set up an independent review team to investigate MSHA’s conduct in the events surrounding the collapse.
UtahAmerican filed a FOIA request seeking all MSHA documents in September 2007, but the agency provided only a partial response, explaining “that because of the broad scope of UtahAmerican’s request, it had not had time to complete a search for all responsive material,” the appeals court opinion states.
UtahAmerican filed a separate request with the Department of Labor, in August 2008, seeking the independent review team’s interviews.
When its requests were largely denied, the mining company filed a lawsuit to compel MSHA to complete the search and produce responsive material on Oct. 17, 2008. Three days later, it brought an instant action against the Labor Department to compel production of the documents.
In response, a district court ordered the Labor Department to disclose review team findings that it withheld under FOIA exemptions 5 and 7(A), and ordered production of the MSHA transcripts.. The court, however, allowed the department to withhold some information under exemption 7(C).
The Labor Department countered with a notice of appeal and argued that the district court abused its discretion by addressing a matter pending before another judge.
Upon review, the D.C. Circuit dismissed as moot portions of the appeal that relate to Exemption 7(A), and vacated parts of the district court’s decision that address that exemption.
The court also ordered the Labor Department to produce review team transcripts of 47 witnesses, reversed the district court’s judgment to direct the department to disclose the transcripts of 12 remaining witnesses protected by Exemption 7(C), reversed the order to release MSHA transcripts and remanded the case to a district court for further proceedings.
“UtahAmerican is litigating against both a component (MSHA) and its parent agency (DOL), seeking orders from two different judges directing the production of the same documents. Were both claims to proceed, the respective district courts would be required to duplicate their efforts. Moreover, the twin claims could generate contradictory results that could, in turn, generate dueling appeals,” the 13-page ruling states.
“[W]e conclude that the court should have left disposition of the balance of the remaining documents to the court hearing the earlier-filed suit,” the opinion, filed per curiam, adds.