Lawyers for the U.S. Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration filed suit in U.S. District Court in Pikeville, Ky., seeking an injunction against Massey subsidiary Freedom Energy's Mine No. 1 in Pike County.
Citing nearly 2,000 violations over the last two years, MSHA said its inspectors had repeatedly cited the company for failure to clear the mine of excessive coal dust, not properly controlling the mine roof, ignoring requirements for testing and maintaining electrical equipment, and not effectively ventilating the mine.
"This mine is basically an accident away from a possible tragedy," said M. Patricia Smith, who as solicitor of labor is the agency's top attorney.
MSHA sought a federal court order that would close the entire mine -- an action the agency can't take on its own authority -- until it corrects all hazardous conditions and designs a new safety program MSHA will approve.
If granted, MSHA's request would put the operation under an unprecedented court order that a federal judge would have to sign off on before mining could resume. MSHA also is seeking to force Massey to pay miners for the period the mine is closed. The mine employs about 135 underground miners and produced about 600,000 tons of coal in 2009, according to MSHA records.
Under MSHA's proposed court order, the new safety program must contain improved training requirements, ensure that high-level mine officials conduct additional safety inspections, and mandate mine evacuations when additional violations are found.
"Freedom needs to do all of these things for long enough to establish good safety and health habits," the agency's acting district manager for Eastern Kentucky, James Poynter, said in a sworn statement filed in court. "This will probably take a year, but if Freedom has a regular, quarterly inspection without any significant and substantial violations, that might be long enough."