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Feds penalize Indiana mine operator for 'knowingly' putting miner safety at risk

A image of a mine from a distance. Dark earth ripples into the background with two large machines one them
Harald Funken
/
Pixabay
Federal law requires mine operators to stop work after detected methane levels rise above 1.5 percent and de-energize drills to avoid igniting an explosion.

A federal commission leveled $96,000 in penalties against Peabody Midwest Mining for a safety failure at an Indiana site that could have been “catastrophic.” No one was injured or killed.

“Very thankful here that nobody was hurt, but [the penalty] sends that message to miners that there's an agency out there that's … looking out for their safety and health,” said Chris Williamson, U.S. Department of Labor assistant secretary of mine safety and health. “[And it] also sends the message to the operators that you have to take the standards seriously.”

Workers the Francisco mine in southeastern Indiana were at risk when a mine manager failed to act as a drill released potentially-explosive methane in July 2018. The Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission ruling announced details earlier this month.

“All it takes is the smallest spark when you have methane at a certain level, to create a horrible accident,” Williamson said.

Federal law requires mine operators to stop work after detected methane levels rise above 1.5 percent and de-energize drills to avoid igniting an explosion.

An investigation found Peabody manager Michael Butler instructed workers “not to kill power to the drill,” keeping it running for at least half an hour despite receiving at least two methane levels readings more than 5 percent, well above the federal threshold. During that time, “no less than six workers” were in the area.

“That could have not only jeopardized the miners who were working on this particular drill in this particular section,” Williamson said. “There have been instances throughout history where you start a fire, and then it just explodes and ripples throughout the mine.”

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A methane build-up caused a 2010 mine explosion that killed 29 workers in West Virginia, according to a state investigation.

The commission held Butler personally responsible for the “dangerous" work conditions and gave him a $6,000 penalty as well.

“That's another way to not just hold mine operators accountable, but to actually hold leadership accountable for knowingly putting miners [at] risk,” Williamson said. "It's a little bit of a higher standard, in terms of what we have to prove. But it's incredibly important to also hold individuals accountable, in addition to just the mine operator. We thought that was warranted in this particular case, especially given the hazard that was in place and the seriousness of it.”

The St. Louis, Missouri-based Peabody Energy operates other mines in Indiana, across the nation and in Australia. The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this incident and ruling.

The commission ruling came after Peabody appealed an earlier decision by an administrative law judge. The commission unanimously upheld the majority of the judge’s ruling. The final fine was slightly less than what officials asked for, Williamson said, but was still appropriate given the violation.

In September 2018, a worker was killed by a fire in a haul truck cab he was driving for Peabody’s Bear Run mine, slightly north of the Francisco mine. MSHA officials cited the company and contractor Cintas because various safety measures on the truck were “not properly maintained.”

More recently, in January, a miner was killed underground in Oaktown, near the Illinois border, operated by Sunrise Coal. A preliminary report says the worker died “pinned between the continuous mining machine and a coal rib,” but that incident is still under investigation.

Contact reporter Adam at arayes@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @arayesIPB.

Adam is Indiana Public Broadcasting's labor and employment reporter. He was born and raised in southeast Michigan, where he got his first job as a sandwich artist at Subway in high school. After graduating from Western Michigan University in 2019, he joined Michigan Radio's Stateside show as a production assistant. He then became the rural and small communities reporter at KUNC in Northern Colorado.