The United Mine Workers of America (“UMWA”) has successfully challenged three provisions of a Mine Safety and Health Administration (“MSHA”) final rule on mine rescue teams that the group believed contravened the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 (“MINER Act”). In an opinion that will likely have expansive implications for future rulemaking battles, the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that MSHA’s mine rescue rule violated Section 4 of the MINER Act.

United Mine Workers v. Chao, No. 08-1147 (D.C. Cir. Feb. 10, 2009) held that three of the provisions in the mine rescue final rule were inconsistent with the clear statutory language set forth in the MINER Act. The court struck down MSHA’s rules that allowed i) annual training for teams at small mines in lieu of semi-annual training, 30 C.F.R. § 49.20(b)(2), ii) state employees to fulfill their mine rescue contest quota by attending only one contest per year instead of the required two contests, 30 C.F.R. § 49.11, and iii) state employees to fulfill their mine rescue contest requirement by participating as a judge, 30 C.F.R. § 49.11. The controlling factor in these determinations was the statutory language.

Specifically, MSHA’s final rule allowed mine rescue teams at small mines to train only annually at the mine. However, the MINER Act’s small mine provision, 30 U.S.C. § 825(e)(2)(B)(iv)(II)(cc) states that “the operator of each underground coal mine with 36 or less employees shall…(II) make available two certified mine rescue teams whose members…(cc) participate at least semi-annually in mine rescue training at the underground coal mine covered by the mine rescue team.” The D.C. Circuit held MSHA’s annual training requirement does not adhere to the unambiguous semi-annual training provision in the Act despite MSHA’s claim that the semi-annual requirement only applied to contract teams.

The final rule’s provision for state employees participating in mine rescue teams was struck down for similar reasons. While MSHA allowed state employees to substitute their work experience for half of their mine rescue training requirements, the Act requires all rescue teams to participate in two mine rescue contests per year. Again, the court adhered to the language in the statute and found that MSHA’s rule impermissibly contravened clear statutory intent.

Unlike the other two provisions, the court hesitated before striking down the final rule’s provision that allowed state employees to fulfill their two mine rescue contest requirement by participating as a judge in one of the contests. The opinion stated that while it was not linguistically contradicting the statute, the rule was still unreasonable because Congressional intent required experimental education for the teams.

The court found the Union's remaining challenges to MSHA's rules to be without merit. These challenges included a claim that MSHA improperly classifies Mine Emergency Response Development (“MERD”) exercises as mine rescue contests; an objection to allowing two mine rescue contests to be held on consecutive days; challenges to MSHA's implementation of certification and training requirements; and an argument concerning the requirement that a unspecified portion of on-site training be conducted underground. These regulations were all deemed to be consistent with the MINER Act’s requirements.

The National Mining Association (“NMA”) supported MSHA in this legal battle, one of the few times the interests of the industry organization and government agency have aligned. Despite the apparent loss that creates even more stringent requirements for the already daunting task of maintaining two mine rescue teams, this opinion may prove to be useful in the future. In essence, the court held MSHA to task for failing to follow the clear mandate of the statute’s language. As a result, this precedent may be used the next time MSHA decides to reach beyond its authority at the cost of the mine operators. In the end, the case gives industry advocates another weapon in its arsenal to combat ad hoc and unreasoned rulemaking.