Massey said in a statement that it doesn't believe the mine is unsafe, but that it has "struggled to comply with newer MSHA standards." Massey said it "is considering idling the mine until it can ensure that the mine will meet current MSHA standards."
But in its extensive court filings -- including sworn statements from seven agency inspectors, experts and supervisors -- MSHA alleges a wide variety of "critical safety and health standards" dating back to at least July 2008.
For example, MSHA Pikeville field officer supervisor William Sergent said in a court filing that agency inspectors frequently find inadequate roof support, accumulations of explosive coal dust, and untested and mislabeled electrical equipment. Massey mine managers frequently do not do proper safety examinations meant to uncover and correct such problems, Sergent said.
"Freedom Energy has demonstrated time and again that it cannot be trusted to follow basic safety rules when an MSHA inspector is not at the mine," said MSHA chief Joe Main. "If the court does not step in, someone may be seriously injured or die."
Since 1977, MSHA has had legal authority to take stepped up enforcement action against mine operators that commit a "pattern of violations." But MSHA has never successfully used that authority, and earlier this year lost a legal challenge to an effort to do so at another Massey mine.
But separate legal language allows MSHA to seek a federal court injunction against mines with repeated violations and where miners are at a continuing risk. Unlike its administrative "pattern of violations" tool, a court injunction does not require all citations MSHA is using as evidence to have survived company appeals.
Smith, the labor department solicitor, said her agency is considering similar suits against other mines.
"We have a number of other mines under consideration," she said. "We're looking at their records right now."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.