- Associated Press - Friday, July 4, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - The U.S. Department of Labor accuses a North Dakota company of forbidding federal inspectors access to a sand and gravel mine to investigate workplace safety complaints.

The agency filed a lawsuit against Jamestown-based Northern Excavating Co. and its owner this week, alleging the company denied federal officials entry to the mine site at least three times since May.

Court documents say the Mine Safety and Health Administration received complaints in late April alleging several violations, including the failure to provide protective equipment for workers.

Company owner Robert Lindberg did not return telephone calls on Wednesday and Thursday from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Northern Excavating’s website said the company has been in business since 1984 and “has provided cities, counties, state and federal agencies and private parties with our professional excavating and trucking services.”

Mine Safety and Health Administration spokesman Jesse Lawder said the alleged health and safety violations were reported by employees.

“The complaints were not insignificant,” Lawder said. “There may be other problems but we wouldn’t know until we get in there.”

Reports of companies that forbid federal inspectors onto a site are “relatively rare,” Lawder said.

An agency inspector was turned away at the site by a company employee shortly after an initial complaint was received, Lawder said. The agency does not need a warrant to do inspections, he said.

“But it has a gate and it’s locked,” Lawder said. “There wasn’t a means of entry without their help.”

Inspectors returned to the site a day later to serve the business with an order to halt operations at the mine “but everything was locked and no one was there.”

An inspector returned again in early June but was again denied entry by an employee, Lawder said.

“The mine was operating and it was clear to the inspector that some work had gone on during the time of the shutdown order,” he said.

The agency is awaiting a ruling by a judge on the lawsuit, which accuses the company of violating federal law by forbidding access.

“All we are trying to do is to conduct an inspection,” Lawder said. “Nothing likely will happen until it’s decided by a judge. If we are denied entry again, we would enlist the help of U.S. Marshals to accompany us to the site.”

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