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Appeals Court Rules Mining Companies Can’t Sue Mine Inspectors


Mining companies can’t sue individual government inspectors for damages, according to a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued late last month.

The case involved a Bell County underground mine operated by Left Fork Mining. In 2011, Mine Safety and Health Administration found unsafe levels of methane in the mine during an inspection, and shut it down. Over the next 10 months, no one was allowed in, and federal inspectors ordered the power shut off. The mine began to flood.

So, Left Fork Mining sued the inspectors in federal court for damages. Lexington Attorney John Williams represented the mining company.

“To be honest with you, we frankly did not understand why the power needed to be shut off,” he said. “We proposed many different alternatives to them short of doing that, because they knew the mine would flood.”

But whether the inspectors made the appropriate call or not, both the District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals have now ruled that Left Fork can’t seek damages from the individual inspectors. Instead, it said that Left Fork should try to seek redress through the administrative process.

“I think if we had won it certainly would have opened some doors to try to hold the government accountable when the people who work for the government act, what we believe was outside the law, outside their authority,” Williams said.

The mine in question is Left Fork Mining’s Straight Creek #1 Mine. The mine has a spotty safety record; in the past five years, it’s racked up nearly 400 violations that MSHA deems “significant and substantial.” Nearly all of those violations were in 2010 and 2011. According to data analyzed by NPR late last year, Left Fork owes more than $35,000 in delinquent fines to the federal government, and during its time of delinquency there have been 11 injuries at the mine.

Erica Peterson is a reporter and Kentucky Public Radio correspondent based out of WFPL in Louisville, Kentucky.
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