Judge orders Peabody to pay $174,000 in fines tied to safety of southern Illinois mine

By Jim Suhr, AP
Monday, August 30, 2010

Peabody ordered to pay $174,000 over Ill. mine

ST. LOUIS — An administrative law judge has ordered Peabody Energy Corp. to pay nearly $174,000 of $230,000 proposed fines tied to questioned safety at a southern Illinois mine that federal regulators had claimed continues to endanger workers.

Calling the penalties for one of the world’s biggest coal producers “appropriate,” Gary Melick issued his ruling last Thursday following an expedited hearing in June. The hearing was sought by the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration over its concerns about the Willow Lake mine near Equality, Ill.

St. Louis-based Peabody has defended its record at the mine, which is run by its Big Ridge Inc. subsidiary. A Peabody spokeswoman said the company likely would comment later Monday about the violations and fines that date to December 2008 at the 450-worker mining operation.

Melick, with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission that decides disputed mining violations, tossed out roughly $56,000 in proposed fines on five alleged violations, mainly involving questioned inspections by Big Ridge and an instance of leaving battery-operated equipment turned on.

Several of the violations Melick upheld related to dangerous accumulations of coal dust and other combustibles, in some cases faulting Big Ridge for “unwarrantable failure and high negligence.”

Yet Melick, as Peabody had argued, found “there is no dispute that the violations were abated promptly and in good faith.”

Peabody has 40 days from the date of Melick’s ruling to pay the fines, unless the company appeals the matter to the full review commission.

In seeking the expedited resolution of the matter, the MSHA had called the violations “significant and substantial” and the result of Peabody disregarding or showing indifference to its safety responsibilities.

Peabody has countered that such claims were “inflammatory, unfounded and confrontational,” arguing that it has made an aggressively thorough review of the mine’s operations in pursuit of enhanced safety. The company also pressed that the MSHA’s call for the expedited resolution of the contested violations was “based more on building publicity than resolutions.”

Peabody also termed its safety record “outstanding and far better than the vast majority of industries in the U.S. and around the globe.”

The MHSA has been cracking down on safety following several major U.S. mining disasters.

The MSHA’s impatience with the Willow Lake mine comes as the agency has tried to crack down on mines with a history of serious violations, following an April explosion that killed 29 men at Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch in West Virginia. The blast is the nation’s worst coal mine disaster in 40 years.

Willow Lake, which opened in 2002, produced 3.4 million tons of the black ore last year, according to MSHA’s website. The mine and its adjacent site — where the coal is cleaned for shipment, often to Midwest utilities — runs two shifts a day seven days a week throughout the year, according to Peabody’s website.




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