Where there is smoke, there is “fire”?


On July 31, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued a ruling affirming the Secretary of Labor’s interpretation of the term ”fire” in the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, and accordingly affirmed a decision of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission that patches of smoldering and smoking coal observed by mine safety inspectors in a coal mine could support the issuance of safety orders, citations and fines.  It was agreed that no visible flames were present, and the mining company challenged the basis of these sanctions.  The case is The American Coal Company v. Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission and Department of Labor

After American Coal contested the issuance of these orders, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ)  agreed with American Coal that the term “fire” in the Act required the presence of a visible flame.  However, the Review Commission determined that the term was ambiguous, and reversed the ALJ.  The next ALJ affirmed the Commission’s ruling and upheld the safety order.  The Court of Appeals, employing Chevron deference in construing a law that is decidedly remedial in purpose, also held that the term “fire” in the Act was ambiguous, and that the Commission’s interpretation was a reasonable interpretation that must be affirmed