A federal appeals court has overturned a citation issued by the Mine Safety and Health Administration in the 2000 fatal methane explosion at the Willow Creek Mine.

An investigation by MSHA concluded that the July 31, 2000, blast that killed two miners was caused by inadequate ventilation, which caused a buildup of explosive methane gas. Federal mine regulators cited the mine's owners claiming that they were on notice that its ventilation system was performing inadequately.

In a ruling issued Monday, the 10th Circuit noted that MSHA's basis for the citation relied heavily on two officials from the parent company Plateau Mining Corp., who testified that they had noticed a buildup of explosive gas levels within the mine days before the explosion. Appellate judges said that although there was a rise in gas levels, it was not enough to exceed safety limits and could not be considered as putting mine owners on notice that ventilation was inadequate.

MSHA found the initial explosion was sparked by a falling rock in one methane pocket. Workers tried to fight the fire started by the blast, but the heat grew more intense. The fire set off two more explosions. Killed were Cory Nielsen, 28, and Shane Stansfield, 29. Eight others were reported injured.

The miners killed and injured fighting the fire were two miles down. In all, 99 workers were in the mine at the time of the explosion.

The mine was closed down shortly after the tragedy, leading to the layoff of hundreds of workers and economically devastating an already shaken community.

Plateau Mining appealed MSHA's citation. The citation was affirmed by an administrative law judge. Later, four members of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission were split on the matter, leaving the citation to stand. The case was then appealed to the 10th Circuit.

"Although we are disappointed that the court did not uphold MSHA's citation in this case on narrow factual grounds, we are encouraged that the court's decision vigorously affirmed MSHA's legal position that an operator's ventilation system must work both effectively and adequately," said Ed Clair, associate solicitor for MSHA. "The court's ruling affirming MSHA's legal position will bolster the agency's efforts in future cases to protect the health and safety of America's miners."


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