Judge sides with coal miner who videotaped leaking seals

A coal company improperly disciplined an eastern Kentucky miner who used a video camera to document leaking seals in an underground mine, an administrative law judge has ruled.

Charles Scott Howard played the video for officials at a meeting in Lexington in July 2007, as regulators considered new rules on mine seals in the wake of explosions that killed 17 men in Kentucky and West Virginia in 2006.

Mine seals are meant to block off water and deadly explosive methane gas in unused parts of mines. Inadequate seals were implicated in both blasts.

The reaction was swift after Howard showed the footage he had shot at the Cumberland River Coal Co. Band Mill No. 2 mine.

Federal inspectors went to the mine that day and ultimately cited alleged safety violations related to seals.

In short order, the company put a discipline letter in Howard's file.

The company claimed Howard had created an unsafe condition by taking a camera underground, and it said he had violated a company policy on taking photos.

However, that was just a pretext to discipline Howard because company managers were displeased that he had videotaped the seals, Administrative Law Judge T. Todd T. Hodgdon said in his ruling.

Howard's actions were protected by the federal mine-safety act, said Hodgdon, a judge with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.

The judge said disciplining Howard could have made him or other miners apprehensive about documenting hazardous conditions.Howard's attorney, Tony Oppegard, filed the complaint with the commission in early 2008, but it was decided only recently.

Hodgdon ordered Cumberland River, a division of Arch Coal, to expunge all references to the discipline letter from his file; reimburse Howard for costs associated with his complaint, including attorney fees; and post the decision at all its mining properties in Letcher County for 60 days.

The company could appeal the decision.

A spokeswoman for Arch Coal declined Tuesday to comment on the judge's decision.

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