DC Circuit Upholds MSHA's Emergency Lifelines Position

The decision holds that not maintaining emergency lifelines in a manner for miners to use effectively is a significant and substantial violation of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, regardless of the likelihood of a mine emergency actually occurring at the time of the violation.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration announced that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has backed its interpretation that failing to maintain emergency lifelines in a manner for miners to use effectively is a significant and substantial violation of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, regardless of the likelihood of a mine emergency actually occurring at the time of the violation.

The court on June 7 agreed that "emergency safety standards are fundamentally different from non-emergency standards because they are designed to apply meaningfully only in times of emergency," according to MSHA's news release.

Under Section 104(d)(1) of the Mine Act, if the authorized representative finds there has been a violation of a mandatory health or safety standard and also finds the violation "is of such nature as could significantly and substantially contribute to the cause and effect of a coal or other mine safety or health hazard," then the inspector is to include that finding in the citation issued for the violation. The finding is a precondition for enhanced enforcement actions under the act.

The decision upheld a ruling by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission that emergency lifeline failures at Cumberland Coal Resources LP's Cumberland Mine in Greene County, Pa., violated the act. Cumberland appealed, arguing the commission applied the wrong standard when it reversed an administrative law judge’s ruling that the violations were not significant and substantial, and that, even if it applied the correct standard, its findings were not supported by substantial evidence.

"Mine emergency protections need to be in place before an emergency occurs," said Joe Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. "The court recognized that the absence of such protections is a serious matter, to be taken seriously, if miners are to have these protections when they need them the most."

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