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Federal mine review commission overturns judge’s ruling in Sago Mine explosion
January 15, 2014

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) announced that the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission has overturned a decision by Administrative Law Judge Jerold Feldman involving Wolf Run Mining Co.’s Sago Mine in Upshur County, WV, where 12 miners died in a massive explosion Jan. 2, 2006.

The decision to overturn the ruling of the judge focused on how quickly the accident was reported. In a press release, MSHA said that the commission found that the mine operator’s failure to notify MSHA and mine rescue teams immediately after the explosion involved unwarrantable failure and high negligence.

The explosion at the mine occurred at 6:26 a.m. EST, and MSHA was not contacted until 7:50 a.m. Efforts to reach a mine rescue team member at his home did not take place until 8:04 a.m. Consequently, MSHA issued a citation and order to the mine operator for failure to: immediately notify the agency of the explosion, comply with the mine’s emergency evacuation and firefighting program, and immediately contact the mine rescue team, MSHA said in a release.

In his ruling, Feldman concluded that commission case law permitted the operator a reasonable opportunity to investigate the event prior to being required to contact authorities. He also reasoned that the operator’s negligence in not immediately reporting the incident was mitigated by mine management’s wish to execute a rescue attempt and to not be barred from entering the mine. Feldman also took into account the fact that the event occurred on Jan. 2 (when the national holiday for New Year’s Day was being observed) since Jan. 1 fell on a Sunday that year, so MSHA and state offices were closed, making it difficult to reach authorities.

On appeal, a two-member commission majority held, in agreement with MSHA, that the judge erred because he: (1) miscalculated the time at which the mine operator’s duty to report commenced; (2) treated the intentional nature of the operator’s failure to report as a mitigating factor; (3) treated the fact that the explosion occurred on a federal holiday as a mitigating factor; and (4) failed to consider the fact that, when the operator finally attempted to report the explosion, it relied solely on an off-site management official who had limited knowledge of the explosion and limited information and resources available to him at home. In addition to reinstating MSHA’s unwarrantable failure and high negligence designations, the commission assessed the company with MSHA’s proposed penalties of $1,500 and $13,000 for two separate citations.

“The operator’s intention to assist underground personnel during this emergency, while admirable, is exactly the type of conduct that the [Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977] and the Secretary’s regulations are intended to address and avoid,” wrote the commission majority. “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.”

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