Mining Company Sued for Allegedly Not Cooperating With Investigation of Mine Fire

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration filed a lawsuit Friday accusing a mining company of not cooperating in its investigation into a mine fire that killed two workers earlier this year.

The lawsuit alleges Aracoma Coal Co., a subsidiary of Massey Energy Co., is deliberately withholding documents and has failed to turn over other documents and evidence, including emergency air packs used by miners who escaped the fire.

The mine safety agency wants a court order requiring Massey and Aracoma to cooperate. The accident is also the subject of a criminal investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Charleston.

The Jan. 19 fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine started along a beltline more than two miles inside the Logan County mine. Investigators have not said what caused the fire, but they have issued more than 100 violations against the mine since the investigation began.

Don I. Bragg, 33, and Ellery Elvis Hatfield, 47, died after they were separated from their crew.

"This is the first time MSHA has been faced with a broad refusal by a mine operator to provide relevant documents in an investigation and, subsequently, the first time that this kind of civil action against a mine operator has been necessary," David Dye, MSHA's acting administrator, said in a news release.

Richmond, Va.-based Massey, the nation's fourth largest coal company in revenue, could not immediately be reached for comment.

The company's lawyer has said in correspondence included with the lawsuit that some material, including documents required by federal law, can't be found or never existed. Other documents are purposely being withheld, according to an e-mail sent by Massey attorney Mark Heath to the leader of the federal investigation on March 24.

"Aracoma has decided that it will only produce records required to be kept and maintained under the Mine Act," Heath wrote. The company adopted that position because of a newspaper article that indicated investigators had leaked confidential information to the press.

The fire broke out less than three weeks after 12 miners died following an explosion Jan. 2 at the Sago Mine, about 180 miles away. The Sago Mine is owned by International Coal Group Inc.

The deadly accidents led to new state and federal mining legislation that requires coal companies to provide emergency communication and tracking devices to miners and to store extra air supplies underground.