Appeals court rules Minnesota mine operator ‘flagrantly’ violated Mine Act after elevated walkway collapsed in 2016
WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court ruled unanimously on Aug. 22, 2022, that the operator of a Lake County, Minnesota, iron ore mine flagrantly violated the federal Mine Safety and Health Act when it directed miners to work on an elevated walkway known to be unsafe for more than a year.
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals also found two managers employed by Northshore Mining Co. personally liable for the violation and assessed each with a $4,000 fine based on the managers’ lack of effort to encourage repairs despite knowing about the dangerous walkway.
“Protecting the safety and health of our nation’s miners is our highest priority,” said Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health Chris Williamson. “The U.S. Department of Labor will hold mine operators and individuals accountable when they break the law and jeopardize workers’ safety and health. Congress gave Mine Safety and Health Administration the authority to designate serious violations that operators know about but do not try to correct as flagrant, and we will not hesitate to use this authority to ensure that the laws that protect miners are adequately enforced.”
After a series of mine tragedies, Congress passed the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act in 2006, an update to the Mine Act that allowed significant penalties, currently up to $291,234, to be imposed for flagrant violations of mine health and safety standards.
For the first time, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals considered what constitutes a reckless flagrant violation under the Mine Act. The MINER Act defines a flagrant violation as “a reckless or repeated failure to make reasonable efforts to eliminate a known violation of a mandatory health or safety standard that substantially and proximately caused, or reasonably could have been expected to cause, death or serious bodily injury.”
The court determined the Secretary’s definition of “reckless” in the flagrant definition was reasonable and Northshore’s failure to maintain the walkway met that definition. It found the violation occurred because of the operator’s reckless disregard, and the failure to comply with mine safety standards was “unwarrantable.”
The court ordered the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission to assess a civil penalty for the violation considering its flagrant designation.
In June 2015, an independent engineering report commissioned by Northshore noted an elevated walkway at its iron ore processing plant was structurally inadequate and unsafe for use. Mud and debris often covered the walkway, which hid the deficiencies from miners’ view. Management continued sending miners to work on the walkway. In September 2016, a miner working on the walkway about 50 feet above the ground was injured when the walkway collapsed.
Federal law requires mine operators to maintain elevated walkways in good condition and to barricade or post warning signs about hazards that are not immediately obvious. After investigating the accident, MSHA issued enforcement actions for the operator’s failure to comply with each requirement and designated the walkway violation as a flagrant violation. MSHA also held two managers personally liable for knowingly authorizing, ordering, or carrying out the walkway violation.
Rebecca Mullins in the department’s Office of the Solicitor, handled the case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit.