Report: mine safety director's firing unfair

A safety director at a Leslie County strip mine was fired because he tried to correct potentially dangerous defects in equipment and pointed out other problems, a federal investigator concluded.

The U.S. Department of Labor wants the miner, Jonathan Gregory, reinstated while he pursues a claim that he was improperly fired.

The department filed documents Friday requesting that T&T Energy LLC be ordered to give Gregory back his job, said Tony Oppegard, one of Gregory's attorneys.

"Jonathan was just trying to do his job as a safety director should do his job," said Oppegard, who represents Gregory along with Wes Addington, deputy director of the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center in Whitesburg.

Amy C. Hamilton, who is listed as the agent for T&T Energy, in London, did not return a telephone call Friday seeking comment.

Oppegard said it is unusual for a coal-company safety director to file a complaint like Gregory's. He was aware of only one other such case under the 1977 mine-safety law.

Under federal mining law, Gregory's complaint is a discrimination claim. He alleges that T&T Energy discriminated against him by firing him for taking part in acts protected by the law: reporting safety issues.

Gregory had been at odds with company management over several issues before he was fired Nov. 7, according to a statement by Freddie Fugate, a special investigator with the Mine Safety and Health Administration, part of the federal Department of Labor.

In early October, Gregory told federal and state mining officials that he thought a job applicant had provided false documentation about taking required annual training, Fugate found.

After that, T&T Energy's chief financial officer, Bill Woods, told Gregory the company wouldn't discipline him for calling authorities, but that he needed to make the matter "go away," Fugate said in his findings.

Gregory also was frustrated that it was taking 10 to 30 days to get some safety problems fixed, and he had written a series of memos in September and October about the problems.

After a worker fell off a bulldozer at the mine in late October and broke his ankle, T&T Energy chief executive Tony Hamilton tried to get Gregory not to report the injury to MSHA, as required by law, Fugate said.

Hamilton and Gregory also argued about following the mine plan on one issue, according to the federal investigator.

When companies blast and dig away parts of hills to reach coal, there is a sheer wall, called a highwall, created as part of the process.

The approved plan at T&T Energy's Begley Resources No. 1 mine reportedly called for creating a bench 25 feet wide at the base of the highwall, like the benches in large highway cuts.

Such benches are meant to catch large rocks that can fall off the wall, so they don't plummet into the pit where employees are working to load coal.

Hamilton wanted a much narrower bench so he could save on blasting costs when he mined the coal underneath, according to the MSHA investigator's statement.

Over Gregory's objections, Hamilton removed the bench and mined the coal, Fugate said in his findings.

Hamilton later told Gregory not to take an MSHA inspector to the spot, but Gregory told Hamilton he didn't have a choice.

The inspector said piles of rock, called spoil, at the site were too high and the bench was not adequate.

Gregory told an equipment operator to reduce the spoil piles, but when the inspector left, Hamilton told the employee to stop removing the spoil and get back to mining coal, Fugate said in his report.

The inspector cited the mine on Nov. 3 because the issue with the bench had not been corrected.

On Nov. 7, Gregory and Hamilton argued about a large rock-hauling truck.

Gregory had told a mechanic to remove the truck from service because of a problem that could cause the driver to lose control of the steering, but Hamilton ordered that the truck be kept on the job, the federal investigator said.

Later that day, Gregory heard Hamilton yelling at a contractor over the telephone. Afterward, Hamilton told Gregory he had made everyone afraid to work because of the inspector, and that equipment was not to be shut down for repairs during a working shift, according to Fugate's report.

"Hamilton told Gregory that the only time equipment was going to be repaired was between shifts and that if Gregory didn't like it, he could quit," Fugate said in his findings.

Gregory told Woods to find a new safety director, but Woods told him to think about it overnight.

Later that evening, however, Woods came to Gregory's house and said Hamilton and his wife, Amy C. Hamilton, had told him to take Gregory's company truck, phone card and keys, according to Fugate.

Gregory had worked for T&T for 18 months.

Fugate concluded that Gregory was fired because he pointed out safety defects, talked with authorities about the possibility that someone falsified training records, discussed the fact that T&T Energy was not following its approved mining plan and tried to get the company to comply.

T&T Energy could contest the Department of Labor's request that Gregory be temporarily reinstated.

If a federal administrative law judge issues a reinstatement order, Gregory would get his job back while the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission considers his discrimination claim. It could take 18 months or more to resolve the claim.

Coal companies can reinstate a miner economically instead of physically, meaning it could pay a miner who would not come to work.