How far does MSHA jurisdiction extend beyond mine property?

By and |  August 29, 2023


Margo Lopez headshot 2022 Ogletree Deakins


Clearly, 2-1 decisions can cut both ways.

In April 2022, the Federal Mine Safety & Health Review Commission (FMSHRC), in Secretary of Labor v. KC Transport, found in a 2-1 decision that the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) had no jurisdiction to issue citations at a trucking company’s parking and maintenance facility located more than a mile away from mine property.

On Aug. 1 of this year, the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit vacated the FMSHRC decision in another 2-1 decision and remanded the case back to FMSHRC for further review. The D.C. Circuit panel majority determined that FMSHRC erred in finding that Congress’ text in the Mine Act unambiguously placed the KC Transport facility beyond the scope of MSHA jurisdiction.

Instead, the majority found the statute to be ambiguous and, thus, FMSHRC and the courts should consider whether to grant deference to MSHA’s interpretation of the ambiguous law. In that regard, however, the court found that MSHA had not yet provided an interpretation for the court to review and, therefore, sent the case back to give the agency that opportunity.

In all likelihood, the case will end up back at the D.C. Circuit for a final decision.

While the D.C. Circuit’s majority found that the Mine Act was ambiguous and could be interpreted either way, the decision opens the door for MSHA to broaden its jurisdiction to off-site facilities and equipment.

The majority did signal that it is not inclined to hold that MSHA’s jurisdiction off mine property is boundless. The court directed the agency to explain on remand how jurisdiction off mine property can work from a practical standpoint given the various requirements of the Mine Act for mine operators and MSHA.

These are the essential facts: KC Transport is an independent trucking company that operates off-road haul trucks at nearby mines and over-the-road trucks unrelated to mining. KC Transport performs about 60 percent of the services from its parking and maintenance facility for a nearby coal operator. Further, no mine operator employs personnel or maintains equipment at the facility. A logging company also utilizes the facility.

This case began when an MSHA inspector visited the KC Transport facility looking for trucks he had cited at the nearby mine – in order to confirm abatement and terminate citations. While at the KC facility, the inspector observed two mine trucks being repaired while not blocked against motion. The inspector issued two citations.

The language at the heart of this case is in 30 U.S.C. § 802(h)(1)(C). This section defines a “coal or other mine,” in pertinent part, as “facilities, equipment, machines, tools … used in, or to be used in, or resulting from, the work of extracting … minerals.”

MSHA argued throughout the litigation that this language was unambiguous and applicable to the trucks at the trucking facility. Only later, when confronted by the circuit court’s indication that it viewed the language as ambiguous, did the secretary of labor offer an interpretation.

The secretary’s new, general interpretation required MSHA to determine if equipment constitutes a mine by conducting a “fact-based inquiry” to evaluate how related the facility or equipment was to mining activity. In this evaluation, MSHA says location is just one factor that may be relevant to this analysis.

The circuit court, however, did not see this interpretation as workable. It signaled that location, in relation to the mine, had to play a bigger role in MSHA’s interpretation.

As support for this, the court noted the nuts-and-bolts administrative aspects of enforcement at mines – not addressed in MSHA’s approach – where location is a critical component.

For instance, if each piece of equipment is a mine, is the operator required, under 30 U.S.C. § 819(d) of the Mine Act, to file with the secretary of labor the name and address of where it is located? If that does not happen, how will MSHA find the equipment when it is off mine property in order to fulfill its obligation, under 30 U.S.C. § 813(a), to make frequent inspections? Further, the court asked, how long after equipment is “used in” mining does it still qualify as a “mine” if no longer located on mine-related property?

Given these issues, the majority concluded that: “The Secretary’s broad and categorical view, although temptingly clear in theory, ultimately creates many more questions in practice. These questions bespeak ambiguity, and the Secretary’s litigation position must explain how they were taken into account.”

Consequently, the ball is back in MSHA’s court to fashion an interpretation of the definition of “coal or other mine” that provides a workable administrative framework for extending jurisdiction to off-site facilities and equipment.

MSHA is still interpreting what constitutes a mine 46 years after the Mine Act passed. Mine operators and equipment repair/storage facilities handling equipment away from mine property should watch the next stage of agency interpretation in this case closely.

Featured Photo: P&Q Staff

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