Feds Clamor Over Dangerous Mine Condition at DC Circuit

WASHINGTON (CN) – Critical of the dangers miners faced from a shortened roof, the government argued before the D.C. Circuit Friday that regulators should not have considered the other safety measures that might protect workers from a deadly collapse.

The case revolves around a citation the Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration issued in 2011 regarding a coal mine in Buchanan County, Virginia, operated by Consolidation Coal Co. Though an inspector found that a cut to the mine roof exposed miners to deadly roof falls, an administrative law judge with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission determined in 2015 that the violation was not significant and substantial.

In reaching this conclusion, the judge considered other safety measures — namely that workers would be protected from a roof fall because of other equipment and guidelines that prohibit them from walking or working under unsupported roof.

When the commission reviewed the ruling, it split 2-2, leaving it intact.

Calling the judge’s decision “flawed,” Emily Toler with the Mine Safety and Health Administration argued Friday morning that the administrative law judge should not have considered so-called redundant safety measures.

Toler also said administrative law judges should not assume that miners will exercise caution, and that whether they did so in this case is irrelevant.

Consolidation Coal Company, which was owned by Consol Energy at the time, meanwhile contends that the judge properly relied on evidence before her. Billy Shelton, an attorney for the company with Shelton Branham in Kentucky, said Friday that the company offered proof no miners would be in the area of another potential roof collapse.

U.S. Circuit Judge Gregory Katsas pushed back on that assertion, however, noting that inspector who issued the citation observed miners trying to secure the excessive cross-cut with roof bolts.

“They have to go under the affected area to bolt it, as I understand,” Katsas said.

Shelton explained that miners have equipment – an automated temporary roof support system – that allows them to secure mining roofs, adding that this process happens at every mine, every day. Every time miners take a cut of coal, they must use bolts to secure the unsupported roof left behind, he said.

While Toler called it proper for the commission to consider the safety offered by the temporary support system, Shelton rejected that assertion in his brief.

“By its very nature, the ATRS system is not a ‘redundant safety measure’” the brief says, abbreviating automated temporary roof support. “Instead, it is the primary safety measure for roof bolters who are performing their work in installing roof bolts.”

Toler in turn said the judge should have considered that the roof cut in question was too deep because, even with redundant safety measures in place, accidents can still happen.

“The system might not be properly positioned; it might not be flush against the roof; miners could work outside its protection; or it simply might not be able to protect miners from a roof fall,” Toler’s brief states.

Though mine safety has improved with the passage of the Mine Safety and Health Act in 1977, when 242 miners died, the field remains a dangerous one. Last year, 28 miners died, according to data from the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Of these fifteen were coal miners.

Mine-roof falls in underground mines are a leading cause of miner deaths. It is because of their inherent danger that the Mine Safety and Health Administration considers roof falls among the most serious mining hazards.

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