An administrative law judge's decision in favor of Wolf Run Mining Company's delayed notification of the Sago Mine disaster to officials, has been overturned. The Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission says that Wolf Run's failure to immediately notify MSHA and mine rescue teams after the explosion that killed 12 mines in 2006, "involved unwarrantable failure and high negligence."
The explosion happened at 6:26 a.m. on Jan. 2, 2006. Mine officials contacted MSHA at 7:50 a.m. and mine rescue team members at 8:04 a.m. Based on those times, MSHA cited Wolf Run for failure to: immediately notify the agency of the explosion, comply with the mine's emergency evacuation and firefighting program, and immediately contact the mine rescue team.
In an appeal, Administrative Law Judge Jerold Feldman found that the mine operator should have a reasonable amount of time to investigate the incident before contacting the authorities. Feldman also took into account that the explosion happened on a holiday and that MSHA and state offices were closed.
The commission ruled that Feldman: (1) miscalculated the time at which the mine operator's duty to report commenced; (2) treated the intentional nature of the operator's failure to report as a mitigating factor; (3) treated the fact that the explosion occurred on a federal holiday as a mitigating factor; and (4) failed to consider the fact that, when the operator finally attempted to report the explosion, it relied solely on an off-site management official who had limited knowledge of the explosion and limited information and resources available to him at home. The commission reinstated MSHA's citations unwarrantable failure and high negligence designations, and assessed the company penalties of $1,500 and $13,000 .
"The operator's intention to assist underground personnel during this emergency, while admirable, is exactly the type of conduct that the [Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977] and the Secretary's regulations are intended to address and avoid," wrote the commission majority. "The moments after a mining accident are difficult and frantic, but crucial to an effective response is strict adherence to an operator's emergency plan and to the relevant MSHA standards governing conduct after an accident occurs."
MSHA officials issued a statement reacting to the decision: "Although eight years have passed, the memories of that tragic day have not diminished," said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. "We are grateful for the commission's decision in this case reaffirming the importance of immediate reporting of mine accidents."
Wolf Run was a subsidiary of International Coal Group at the time of the Sago Disaster. ICG was acquired by Arch Coal in 2011.