A recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia will force the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to adopt safety rules eliminating hazards similar to those that contributed to 27 fire-related deaths at the Wilberg Mine near Orangeville in 1984, union officials say.

The court told MSHA it will accept a new roof control regulation for longwall coal-mining systems like Wilberg only if MSHA addresses the problem of blocked tailgate travel-ways in new ventilation regulations now being developed. The court also ruled that any existing blockages must be corrected immediately.Wilberg investigators concluded that a blocked tailgate was in part responsible for the 27 deaths because it eliminated one potential path of escape for the trapped miners. Investigators said inadequate roof supports contributed to the blockage.

The United Mine Workers of America filed suit last year to block new roof control regulations issued by MSHA as part of its effort to rewrite mine safety regulations. The court ruled that the regulations are contrary to federal law, which prohibits new regulations that "reduce the protection afforded miners by an existing mandatory safety standard."

United Mine Workers Vice President Cecil Roberts said the ruling is a significant victory. "When you consider that roof falls have been the single leading cause of coal miner deaths since 1973 and have killed 577 miners in the past 16 years, it's even harder to understand the agency's blindness to the law and its drive to weaken safety regulations."

The court ruled that new regulations on safety standards for roof bolts and roof support removal were "arbitrary and capricious."

Union officials said the ruling will have significant impact on ventilation rules now in the making and will also force MSHA to go back and review dozens of proposed changes to other regulations affecting miner safety.