Agency Sues Mining Company in Wake of Fire

Agency Sues Mining Company in Wake of Fire

Federal mine safety regulators filed a lawsuit on Friday against one of the largest mining companies in the country in an effort to force its officials to cooperate with the investigation of a deadly fire in January at a West Virginia coal mine.

The civil suit, filed in a Federal District Court in West Virginia, describes a “broad refusal” by the company, Massey Energy, to turn over documents concerning management authority, ventilation, previous fires, construction projects and other matters at the Aracoma mine near Melville, W.Va.

“This is the first time the Mine Safety and Health Administration has been faced with a broad refusal by a mine operator to provide relevant documents in an investigation and, subsequently, the first time that this kind of civil action against a mine operator has been necessary,” said David G. Dye, the agency’s acting administrator. “The goal of a mine accident investigation is to determine the cause of the accident and whether the mine operator was complying with the law.”

A spokeswoman for Massey Energy, Katharine W. Kenny, said the company had not yet reviewed the lawsuit and so could not comment on it.

The action comes at a time when the agency has been consistently criticized as lacking doggedness in enforcement of safety regulations, and a day after President Bush signed into law the most sweeping overhaul of such regulations since the agency was created in 1977.

The fire, on Jan. 19, started along a belt line more than two miles inside the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County, southwest of Charleston. The blaze, which killed two miners, occurred less than three weeks after 12 miners died following an explosion on Jan. 2 at another West Virginia mine, the Sago Mine, about 180 miles away.

“We hope the mine safety agency follows through on this lawsuit to ensure Aracoma is brought to account,” said Phil Smith, as spokes for the United Mine Workers of America. “It’s not surprising to us that they are having trouble with Massey, given the company’s history of safety violations.”

Tony Oppegard, a former top official with the Mine Safety and Health Administration and a former prosecutor of mine-safety violations in Kentucky, added that the bigger problem was that the agency had so far chosen to keep its investigation into the Aracoma fire private and voluntary.

“Rather than convening a public hearing which would grant them power to issue subpoenas,” Mr. Oppegard said, “they have opted to conduct this in voluntary fashion, and therefore they are struggling to force the company to cooperate.”

Dirk Fillpot, a spokesman for the safety agency, said officials were still deciding whether to call a public hearing.


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