Federal Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Over Coal Mine Safety

By Matt Apuzzo | August 25, 2006

A federal judge on Wednesday threw out a lawsuit by coal miners demanding that the government do more to ensure miners have working oxygen supplies and know how to use them.

The lawsuit was filed in June after Congress overhauled mine safety rules in response to an explosion at West Virginia’s Sago Mine, where 12 miners died in January.

The United Mine Workers of America had sought to force the Mine Safety and Health Administration to conduct periodic checks of oxygen units and conduct emergency training for all underground coal miners.

But U.S. District Judge John D. Bates said the lawsuit didn’t meet the legal requirements to force a court order. While the mine agency is required to set safety standards, the law leaves those standards to the government’s discretion, Bates said.

“The loss of lives, and the risks miners presently face, weigh heavily in public discourse and are taken seriously by this court,” Bates wrote. “But the tragedy of those events, and the need for greater protection described by plaintiff, cannot substitute for the requirements of the law.”

Mine operators are required to provide oxygen units for their workers, but the union said the devices often don’t work properly and miners are not adequately trained to use them.

Union spokesman Phil Smith said he had not seen the opinion but said a lot was at stake in the case.

“It could have led to security for coal miners that the safety equipment they carry with them underground every day was working properly,” Smith said.

The sole survivor of the Sago mine collapse, Randal McCloy Jr., said at least four of his crew’s air packs failed, forcing the miners to share the devices.

McCloy and the families of two victims filed lawsuits Wednesday against the mine owner and five other companies in a West Virginia court. The suits allege that unsafe working conditions and inadequate safety equipment led to the Jan. 2 explosion.

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