Failure to maintain adequate emergency lifelines in a mine’s escapeways is an S&S violation of the MINER Act’s life line requirement under §75.380(d)(7)(iv), according to a ruling handed down June 7 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
The ruling upholds a Commission finding in favor of MSHA and the Commission’s interpretation of lifeline violations. The court agreed that a violation of the lifeline requirement is S&S if there could be a delayed escape in the event of an emergency.
The case stems from a December 2007 inspection of Cumberland Resources’ mine in Greene County, Pa. MSHA inspector Thomas Whitehair II found four areas in four days where lifelines throughout the mine were seven- to eight-feet from the mine floor, were hung above water lines, or ran in sections were the life lines would be difficult to follow because of various pieces of track equipment in the way. In the event of a mine emergency, the life lines would be difficult or impossible for a miner to reach.
The ALJ agreed with the company that there was not a likelihood of a fire or explosion, so the violation was not S&S.
However, the Commission disagreed, ruling that under the ALJ’s reasoning, a mine could have a completely ineffective escapeway system or none at all, but the violation would not be S&S unless the inspector found other conditions in the mine that are reasonably likely to cause a fire or explosion.
The appeals court upheld the Commission’s finding that evacuation standards are different than other standards because they are intended to apply meaningfully only when an emergency actually occurs, and escapeway equipment must be functional when a mining catastrophe occurs so miners can quickly escape.
The court stressed that “the stakes are much higher in emergency situations…. the hazard here is not a hypothetical mine fire – it is a delayed escape from one.”
Cumberland argued that miners would have been able to rely on using the water lines or cables for guidance in an emergency, or even follow the conveyor.
In rejecting that argument, the court said “the record demonstrates that miners are trained to use lifelines in emergencies, and thus, even if they did think to use the belt structure or the waterlines, they would still be delayed as they first attempted to find and use the lifeline.”
In addition, the court agreed with the MSHA inspector that because the waterline and belt structure lacked the lifeline’s required directional indicators, “it would be very easy [for miners] to become confused and maybe turn around and go the wrong direction, because it’s not going to tell them what direction they are going.”
Third, the court said “Cumberland’s argument ignores another lifesaving advantage an adequate lifeline would have over a cable or waterline: lifelines are designed to guide miners to alternative refuges, and waterlines and cables are not.
Cumberland Coal Resources LLP, 6/7/2013, CADC No. 11-1464 affirming 33 FMSHRC 2357