By CBS News Investigates Intern Danna Sherne
As the most dangerous year for mining industry in nearly two decades draws to a close, a federal judge has rejected a motion by Massey Energy to dismiss a Labor Department complaint that one of the company's mines is persistently dangerous and should be shut down until safety regulations are met.
The Labor Department had complained that the Massey Energy-operated mine, Freedom Energy Mine # 1 in Pike County, KY, was so dangerous that it required federal court supervision.
U.S. District Judge Amal Thapar's decision, issued late Wednesday, clarifies specific language from the mine safety law, ruling that the Labor Dept. can call companies that operate hazardous mines before federal court until the violations are addressed.
This part of mine safety law, known as the "injunctive relief" provision, has never been exercised since its creation in 1977.
Tony Oppegard, a former mine safety regulator and mine safety prosecutor in Kentucky, told CBS News this ruling signals "there's going to be a more aggressive approach to mine safety" taken by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).
Oppegard also noted that MSHA's decision to bring Massey Energy to federal court is linked to the national attention on the mining industry this year. In April, 29 miners died after an explosion in Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia.
That accident contributed to making this year the deadliest year for coal miners in the U.S since 1992, according to a Fairwarning report.
This year, 48 coal workers were killed nationwide. In 1992, 55 coal miners died; last year, the number of coal miner fatalities fell to 18.
"Even before the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine, the Labor Department was looking at this provision to decide if it was something we could use to keep miners safe," Labor Department solicitor M. Patricia Smith told CBS News in an e-mail. "The fatalities of this year certainly added to the urgency of that decision, but it was not the initial impetus."
Oppegard says that this ruling serves as a warning for other violators, who might now worry that MSHA would bring them to federal court.
"Federal court is more powerful; its more intimidating," he said.
The ruling only serves as precedent in the eastern district in Kentucky where the ruling took place. However, Smith thinks that other mine operators who have ignored mine safety laws will take notice.
"They understand that the Labor Department will not hesitate to enforce the Mine Act to protect the lives of miners," she said.
Massey Energy had already stopped production in this mine before this ruling was released. The company did not immediately respond to CBS's request for comment on the ruling.