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Cleveland-Cliffs 'flagrantly' violated mine safety act in 2016 walkway collapse

The federal appeals court ruling is harsher than an earlier Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission decision.

An aerial view of the Northshore Mining pellet plant in Silver Bay
Cleveland-Cliffs’ Northshore Mining in Silver Bay.
Clint Austin / 2020 file / Duluth News Tribune
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SILVER BAY — A federal appeals court found Cleveland-Cliffs' Northshore Mining "flagrantly" violated federal mining safety law when it had miners work on a walkway with known repair issues. A section of the walkway at its Silver Bay pellet plant failed in September 2016, injuring one worker.

In the decision released Monday and reached unanimously by an 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel, the court also ruled two section managers were personally liable for the violation as they knew about the walkway issues but failed to make necessary repairs. Each face a $4,000 fine.

The court denied Northshore Mining's request to review a split decision issued in January 2021 by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission affirming an administrative law judge’s earlier decision that Northshore Mining had shown “reckless disregard” and “unwarrantable failure” but fell short of a “flagrant violation.”

Workers said they told management about the walkway issues "for years" but that nothing had been done to fix the structure.

But the court granted a request from the Department of Labor to reconsider the omission of the violation being "flagrant." The court ultimately determined the violation met the department's definition of "flagrant" under the Mine Safety and Health Act because Northshore's failure to maintain the walkway was "reckless" and its failure to comply with mine safety standards was "unwarrantable."

"We conclude that designating a violation as flagrant does not require burying or hiding evidence of wrongdoing. Northshore’s unjustified declination to begin repairing or even planning to repair the dangerous walkways suffices," Judge Lavenski R. Smith wrote in the opinion. "We conclude that substantial evidence supports the determination that Northshore acted recklessly."

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A U.S. Department of Labor news release on Wednesday said it was the first time the court had affirmed the department's flagrant designation.

"The U.S. Department of Labor will hold mine operators and individuals accountable when they break the law and jeopardize workers’ safety and health," Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health Chris Williamson said in a news release. "Congress gave Mine Safety and Health Administration the authority to designate serious violations that operators know about but do not try to correct as flagrant, and we will not hesitate to use this authority to ensure that the laws that protect miners are adequately enforced.”

The release said flagrant violations can result in more than $291,234 in fines. The court ordered the commission to determine a civil penalty for the violation.

The commission had reversed an earlier decision by the administrative law judge's that said the managers were liable, but the Department of Labor had also petitioned the court to review that decision and the court sided with the department and administrative law judge in determining the managers were liable.

In an email to the News Tribune, Pat Persico, a Cliffs spokesperson, said the company "strongly disagrees with the 8th Circuit of Appeals decision and will pursue reconsideration or appeal of this judgment."

The violation stems from a complaint filed after a worker was hosing taconite pellets off a walkway 40-50 feet above the ground in one of Northshore’s conveyor galleries in September 2016 “when he heard a loud bang and felt the building begin to shake. Sheets of caked mud and buildup from around the structure began to fall on him. … When the shaking stopped, there was a hole in the floor of the walkway directly in front of him,” according to the administrative law judge.

The worker suffered a spinal cord contusion, mild post-traumatic stress disorder and sleep disturbances, the administrative law judge said.

According to the commission, the injured contract miner was wearing a harness at the time of the incident and credited it with preventing serious injury; however, the harnesses weren’t always clipped in when they were moving on the walkway, miners testified.

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Immediately after the incident, a maintenance technician told one of the contract miners cleaning the walkway that the conveyor should have been shut down: “You never should have been in there … we’ve been telling them (upper management) that that has been in terrible condition for years now.”

The concrete had long been cracked and an engineering report from 2015 had determined the outer walkways should be restricted as the outside firm could not determine the walkway’s load-bearing capacity.

Upon hearing about the incident from the contract miner, a senior maintenance technician became “very angry” and said he had been warning management about the problem for years.

“They (upper management) just don’t seem to care,” the senior maintenance technician told the contract miner, according to the contract miner’s testimony.

Related Topics: ENERGY AND MININGSILVER BAYCLEVELAND-CLIFFSIRON RANGE
Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jlovrien@duluthnews.com or 218-723-5332.
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