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Friday, May 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

W.Va. Mine Disaster Notes Will Stay Private

WASHINGTON (CN) - The government does not have to release all of the information it gathered while investigating a West Virginia coal mine explosion, a federal judge ruled.

Massey Energy subsidiary Performance Coal Company, which used to operate the Upper Big Branch mine, filed Freedom of Information Act requests shortly after the 2010 blast that killed 29 miners and injured two others.

The Department of Labor and the Mine Safety and Health Administration released hundreds of pages of documents, but held back several key pages, citing certain FOIA exemptions for law-enforcement purposes. The explosion is currently the subject of a criminal FBI investigation.

In a federal complaint, Performance Coal demanded to see all the information, including documents relating to the disaster, prior mine inspections and key testimony from an MSHA investigator.

The company says it filed the FOIA requests as "part of a larger effort by Performance to determine quickly and comprehensively the cause of the tragedy and obviously to prevent a recurrence."

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon concluded last week that government had fulfilled its FOIA obligations.

"Defendants withheld this information to protect the inspectors, government employees, and miners from 'harassment, intimidation and the possibility of physical harm' and to prevent an 'unwarranted invasion of their personal privacy,'" the 18-page decision states.

Leon also cited the importance of preventing interference in ongoing investigations and proceedings in refusing to let the company access the MSHA investigator's testimony and handwritten notes.

Performance sought information about the MSHA's immediate response to news of the accident, as well as the agency approval process for ventilation plans at Upper Big Branch mine, including recent failures by operators to follow such plans.

Performance Coal was represented by co-plaintiff Allen Guthrie & Thomas of Charleston, W.Va.

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