(CN) – Six coal companies owned by Massey Energy can move forward with claims that safety regulators violated their constitutional rights in the way they implemented a mine-safety law, a Washington federal judge ruled.
U.S. District Judge James Boasberg tossed the companies’ claims that that the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 itself is unconstitutional, but allowed the companies to proceed on claims that the Mine Safety and Health Administration may be putting the act into practice in an unconstitutional way.
Elk Run Coal Company and five other mine operators sued the Department of Labor, the administration and three of its officials, claiming the act was unconstitutional because it allowed the administration to arbitrarily refuse to allow the companies to use certain types of mine ventilation systems, like scrubbers that remove coal dust from the air.
The companies claimed that the act afforded them no venue in which to challenge the administration’s decisions, should they reach an “impasse.”
Judge James Boasberg rejected this claim, finding that the act allowed mining companies to appeal the administration’s decisions to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.
Specific, “fact-based” disputes like whether to allow dust scrubers are exactly the type that the act directs the commission to resolve, according to the ruling.
“Questions such as whether a particular ventilation device is appropriate for the conditions of an individual mine are well within the commission’s expertise and are the type of questions that the commission has frequently resolved in the past,” Boasberg wrote.
But the judge refused to scrap the companies’ claim that the administration implemented the act in a way that violated their due process rights. The companies accused the administration of having a “pattern and practice” of “refusing to approve a submitted plan or adopting an arbitrary position with respect to the plan that is based on generic beliefs unrelated to the specific conditions or mining system at the mine.”
And the companies said the commission refused to set up an accessible appeal process, instead requiring companies to apply for a commission-issued notice that it had violated safety standards in order to be heard.
Boasberg found that the court needed more information to properly evaluate those claims.
“This court cannot say now, as a matter of law, that plaintiffs have failed to plead the deprivation of a protected property interest,” Boasberg wrote. “After discovery and a further factual fleshing out of the issue, the court will be better able to determine whether [the administration] has deprived them of a legitimate protected property interest.”