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Coal operator is suing regulators

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. — A coal company fined $1.46 million last month for safety violations has sued federal mine regulators, the latest example of escalating tensions between coal operators and the U.S. Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The federal lawsuit was filed Monday by American Coal Co., a subsidiary of Murray Energy. That company, owned by Bob Murray, entered the national spotlight last year when nine people died in one of the company's Utah mines.

American Coal claims in its suit that federal inspectors issue citations according to quotas and engage in abusive monitoring. Other operators have said the agency has become heavy-handed to counter criticism of questionable oversight after a string of high-profile mine accidents that left dozens dead in recent years.

In the first 10 months of fiscal 2008, MSHA fined mine operators $97.4 million — a 141 percent increase over the previous fiscal year total. Citations and orders for various infractions are up almost 8 percent.

Operators say that has stifled productivity, increased costs and kept mine operators from cashing in on soaring global demand for coal.

Phil Smith, a United Mine Workers spokesman, said he considers the legal action as proof that "MSHA is finally doing its job" and enforcing the law.

"I've seen a lot of coal companies whining about increased regulation costing them money," Smith said. "What this tells us is that they were skating by without doing the things they were properly supposed to be doing, and now that MSHA is getting a little tougher with enforcement it may cost them a little bit more money. From our perspective, that's not necessarily a bad thing."

In its lawsuit, American Coal asked a federal judge to stop "unfounded and baseless violation citations" under an unconstitutional quota system, which American Coal worries could cumulatively force it to shut down its Galatia operation in southern Illinois.

Without court intervention, American Coal "could cease to exist as a viable commercial entity," the lawsuit said.

MSHA officials could not be reached for comment.

Last month, MSHA said safety regulations were repeatedly violated at the Galatia operation between September 2007 and January, leading to nine citations for flagrant violations.

Murray produces about 30 million tons of coal annually from complexes in Utah, Ohio, Illinois and Kentucky.