Clearly, 2–1 decisions can cut both ways. Mining industry observers will remember that in April 2022, the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission (FMSHRC), in Secretary of Labor v. KC Transport, Inc.—a 2–1 decision—found that the Mine Safety and 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 August 1, 2023, in another 2–1 decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit vacated the FMSHRC decision and remanded the case to FMSHRC for further review. The D.C. Circuit panel majority determined that FMSHRC had erred in finding that Congress’s 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, the majority also found that MSHA had not yet provided an interpretation for the court to review. Therefore, the court sent the case back to FMSHRC to give the agency that opportunity. In all likelihood, the case will end up back at the D.C. Circuit for a final decision after further review below.
- The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit vacated a FMSHRC decision holding that MSHA lacked jurisdiction to issue citations at a trucking company’s facility located more than one mile from a mining company’s property.
- The court found the Mine Act to be ambiguous and thus FMSHRC and the courts should consider whether to grant deference to MSHA’s interpretation of the ambiguous law.
- 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.
While the D.C. Circuit’s majority found that the Mine Act was ambiguous, and thus, could be interpreted either way, the decision certainly opens the door for MSHA to broaden its jurisdiction to off-site facilities and equipment. The majority did signal, however, that it was not inclined to hold that MSHA’s jurisdiction to off-mine property is boundless. The court directed the agency to explain on remand how jurisdiction of 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 approximately 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. The 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 those citations. While at the KC Transport facility, the inspector observed two mine trucks being repaired while not blocked against motion. The inspector subsequently issued two citations to KC Transport.
The language at the heart of this case is found 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.” (Emphasis added.) MSHA argued throughout the litigation that this language was unambiguous and clearly applicable to the mining 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 offer a last-minute interpretation. The secretary’s new, very general interpretation simply required MSHA to determine if equipment constituted a mine by conducting a “fact-based inquiry” to evaluate how closely related the relevant facility or equipment was to mining activity. In this evaluation, according to MSHA, location is “but one factor that may be relevant to this ‘use-in-mining’ analysis.” (Emphasis in the original.)
The D.C. Circuit’s Analysis
The circuit court did not see MSHA’s interpretation as workable. It signaled that location, in relation to the mine, had to play a more significant 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 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 as follows:
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.
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. Forty-six years after the passage of the Mine Act, MSHA is still interpreting the parameters of what constitutes a mine. Mine operators, and equipment repair / storage facilities that handle mining equipment away from mine property, may want to watch this next stage of agency interpretation in this case very closely.
Ogletree Deakins’ Workplace Safety and Health Practice Group will continue to monitor developments with respect to MSHA and will provide updates on the Mine Safety blog as additional information becomes available.