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Panel reinstates penalties for Sago mine explosion

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A federal review panel has reinstated $14,500 in penalties proposed by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration against a coal company for violations involving the 2006 Sago Mine explosion that killed 12 workers.

The Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission overturned an administrative law judge's 2010 ruling that reduced the penalties against Wolf Run Mining Co., an International Coal Group subsidiary, to $11,000. The commission assessed the original penalties proposed by MSHA.

MSHA announced the commission's December decision on Tuesday.

MSHA had proposed a $13,000 penalty for Wolf Run's failure to immediately summon mine rescue teams to the Upshur County mine following the explosion and for the company's failure to comply with the mine's emergency evacuation and firefighting program. The agency designated both violations as "high negligence.'' The failure to comply with the emergency plan also was designated as "an unwarrantable failure.''

MSHA also cited the mine for failing to immediately notify it immediately following the explosion and designated the violation as "high negligence.'' The agency proposed a $1,500 penalty for this violation.

Administrative Law Judge Jerold Feldman had affirmed the violations but reduced the negligence designations from high to moderate, vacated the "unwarrantable failure'' designation, and reduced the penalties.

The commission's decision said Feldman incorrectly determined when Wolf Run had a duty to notify MSHA and mine rescue teams. Feldman also incorrectly treated the delay as a mitigating factor instead of an aggravating factor.

"Although the operator denies intentionally delaying contacting MSHA, the record strongly suggests that Wolf Run management was motivated not to contact MSHA immediately in order to avoid MSHA enforcement,'' the commission wrote in its decision.

Feldman had said in his decision that Wolf Run was conflicted over concern for getting survivors out of the mine, preoccupation with establishing contact with the missing miners and its responsibility to notify MSHA. The review commission said that the company's intent to help the miners was admirable but was the type of conduct that federal mine safety law and regulations are designed to address and avoid.

"The moments after a mining accident are difficult and frantic, but crucial to an effective response is strict adherence to an operator's emergency plan and to the relevant MSHA standards governing conduct after an accident occurs,'' the commission wrote in its decision.

Arch Coal bought ICG in 2011. The company didn't immediately comment Tuesday.

"Although eight years have passed, the memories of that tragic day have not diminished,'' Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said Tuesday in MSHA's news release. "We are grateful for the commission's decision in this case reaffirming the importance of immediate reporting of mine accidents.''

 


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