“Mine emergency protections need to be in place before an emergency occurs,” said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. “The court recognized that the absence of such protections is a serious matter, to be taken seriously if miners are to have these protections when they need them the most.”

Under Section 104 of the Mine Act, according to the justices, upon discovery of any violation that “could contribute to effect of a coal or other mine safety or health hazard,” an inspector must include the finding in the citation issued.

In its June 7 ruling, the court upheld a Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission decision that a mining company failure regarding emergency lifelines violates of the regulatory body’s Act of 1977. The appeal involved Alpha Natural Resources’ Cumberland mine in Greene County, Pa.

Cumberland officials argued the commission applied incorrect standards by reversing an administrative law judge determination that its violations were neither significant nor substantial—and that even if a correct standard were applied, findings were not supportable.

During a December 2007 inspection, an MSHA special investigator issued four citations to Cumberland over its mine escape ways in Greene County over four days, alleging lifeline requirement violations. The investigator reported that, in the event of an emergency, the lifeline and its location would have delayed any miner’s escape—delay with likely potential to result in injury or death.

The regulation stems from amendments to the Mine Act enacted following three multiple-fatality mine disasters in 2006 at Sago, Aracoma and Darby mines, in which miners who were unable to successfully evacuate mines died.

In particular, the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 (MINER Act) requires mine operators to provide flame-resistant and directional lifelines in escape ways to enable evacuation. The labor secretary also promulgated an emergency temporary standard, which became final, requiring lifelines for miners to escape effectively.