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Mine Regulator Sued by Massey

Posted on 23 Jun 2010

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Massey Energy Co. sued the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and three of its officials Tuesday, arguing that the agency wouldn't approve ventilation practices in its mines that Massey says would have benefited the safety and health of miners.

The company, which is being investigated by the MSHA following an April explosion that killed 29 miners at its Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, W.Va., said it couldn't challenge the MSHA's ventilation-plan requirements under federal mine law. Massey said that violated its constitutional rights.

In particular, Massey said the MSHA prevented the company from using dust scrubbers in its mines that would filter out dust that is dangerous for miners to breathe. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., by six Massey subsidiaries based in West Virginia and Kentucky.

"The goal of the lawsuit is pretty simple. It's to retain some control of the ventilation plans our mines operate under," said Shane Harvey, Massey's general counsel.

Amy Louviere, an MSHA spokeswoman, said the agency doesn't comment on pending litigation. The agency has said it restricted the use of scrubbers at Massey mines because the equipment wasn't cleaning the air adequately.

Massey, of Richmond, Va., has quarreled in recent months with the MSHA over ventilation issues and specifically about the use of dust scrubbers, vacuum-like pieces of equipment used to filter the air around mining equipment to reduce the amount of coal dust. Inhaling coal dust can lead to black-lung disease.

Ventilation issues are also at the heart of the civil probe the MSHA is conducting into the April 5 explosion. In that case, federal mine-safety officials say they believe high levels of methane caused the accident, though it isn't known how the gas built up or what ignited it. Mine operators use elaborate ventilation plans to flush methane from mines and spread limestone on surfaces to suppress coal dust. Mr. Harvey said the suit was unrelated to the April accident.

The MSHA's administrator for coal-mine safety and health, Kevin Stricklin, who was named in the Massey suit as a defendant, previously said he believed Massey wanted to use scrubbers to enable it to increase its production rates, because scrubbers can allow a company to mine more coal without interruption.

Mr. Harvey denied that production issues spurred the lawsuit. "We didn't take this step lightly," he said. "Obviously we would prefer not to sue the agency that regulates us."