Massey to permanently idle Pike mine that MSHA had targeted

PIKEVILLE — Massey Energy has announced it is permanently idling production at a Pike County mine that federal regulators sought to close because of repeated safety violations.

The Freedom Energy underground mine near Sidney employs 132 people, who will be relocated to other operations or will remain at the mine to recover equipment and materials, the company said Wednesday.

Last month, regulators from the federal Department of Labor and the Mine Safety and Health Administration filed an action in federal court seeking a judge's order to close the mine.

An MSHA spokeswoman said the court action is not moot because Freedom still will have workers at the mine.

"Just because a mine isn't producing coal (idle, inactive) doesn't mean it isn't subject to the same health and safety regulations as is an active mine. The mine will still undergo regular, mandated inspections until it has been closed and sealed," MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere wrote in an e-mail Wednesday.

After a conference call Wednesday between U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar and attorneys for both parties, a hearing on the Department of Labor's request was scheduled for Jan. 5.

Massey has until Dec. 8 to file a motion to dismiss the action, Thapar ordered Wednesday.

"Even though Massey continues to believe the mine is safe, it has been mined for several decades and has extensive underground works that present particular challenges to maintain," the company said in a news release Wednesday.

MSHA, in court filings, said Massey's subsidiary, Sidney Coal Corp., failed to inspect and maintain "critical areas" of Freedom Energy Mine No. 1, has failed to protect the roof and ribs of the mine from cave-ins, has failed to ventilate the mine of methane and other gases, has failed to prevent combustible coal-dust accumulation, and has failed to inspect and maintain electrical equipment to prevent fire.

The agency says violations since July 1, 2008, "constitute a continuing hazard to the health or safety of miners," and if no injunction is issued, miners risk injury or death.

Freedom Energy was notified by MSHA that a "pattern of violations" might exist at the mine, and the company took steps to avoid such a listing.

The company said it conducted additional training, assigned more employees to prevent and correct violations, and conducted unannounced internal inspections.

A pattern of violations order can be issued by MSHA's safety review board, instead of the courts, but mine operators then appeal violation orders.

A court order would have eliminated some of that recourse.

"The operation has struggled to comply with newer MSHA standards," the company said in a press release dated Nov. 3 in response to the Department of Labor's court action.