CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal mine safety regulators reached an 11th-hour settlement Wednesday with Massey Energy that ends what the Obama administration had touted as a landmark suit to shut down an underground coal mine that government inspectors said posed a continuing hazard to workers.
Massey had announced a month after the suit was filed that it would voluntarily close its Freedom Energy No. 1 Mine in Pike County, Ky., and Wednesday's settlement spells out steps the company must follow to do so safely.
Officials from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Labor Department touted the deal as a major victory for their agencies and for the safety of Massey miners who continue working to shut down and seal the operation.
The case was the first time that MSHA used its 33-year-old authority to seek a federal court injunction against a mine that federal inspectors said posed a continuing hazard to the health and safety of miners.
"This is clearly an unprecedented action," MSHA chief Joe Main told reporters during an afternoon conference call. "It is an historic move forward in terms of the use of this enforcement tool under the mine act."
In a later prepared statement, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis called the settlement "a legal victory not only for the Department of Labor, but for all miners employed by Freedom Energy."
But it was not clear when -- or if -- the government would follow through on earlier promises to file similar lawsuits seeking to put other mining operations under court-supervised safety plans.
Labor Department Solicitor Patricia Smith said two of the three mines her lawyers were considering for such suits have closed, while government officials are still looking closely at the safety record of the third.
"We will use this tool in appropriate circumstances, but we will not use it just to say that we filed for an injunction," Smith said. Earlier in the day, Main told reporters in another conference call that "time will tell" if his agency would pursue more injunction actions.
Smith said MSHA's suit against Freedom Energy has already served as a deterrent, showing the coal industry agency officials are serious about tougher enforcement following the April 5 explosion that killed 29 workers at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.