CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A potentially groundbreaking lawsuit over Massey Energy safety practices apparently survived the company's initial legal challenge on Friday and is headed for a full hearing in early January, officials said.
U.S. Department of Labor officials are seeking a federal court injunction against Massey subsidiary Freedom Energy's Mine No. 1 in Pike County, Ky.
Lawyers for the department's Mine Safety and Health Administration are for the first time using more than 30-year-old enforcement authority in asking U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar to shut down the Freedom operation. MSHA inspectors and supervisors allege the mine has committed a "pattern of violations" that poses a "continuing hazard" to miners' health and safety.
Thapar did not immediately issue a formal ruling and said he would likely do so next week.
But the judge did appear to side with MSHA on two key legal points raised by Massey lawyers in the motion to have the case thrown out: Agency officials do not have to administratively put a mine under a "pattern of violations" status before seeking a court order under a separate section of law, and the court can consider citations that are still being appealed by the company in deciding whether to issue an injunction.
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.
Separate legal authority allows MSHA to seek a federal court injunction against mines with repeated violations and where miners are at a continuing risk.
MSHA had never used that authority either, but agency chief Joe Main launched the Freedom Energy case as part of an Obama administration crackdown following the deaths of 29 miners in an explosion April 5 at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.