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Montana coal mine fined $1M for violating safety regulations

February 1, 2022 GMT

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A central Montana coal mine must pay a $1 million fine for violating environmental and employee safety regulations by failing to report worker injuries and improperly disposing of mine waste, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Montana said.

Signal Peak Energy, through a representative, pleaded guilty last October to four counts of willful violation of health and safety standards at its underground coal mine near Roundup.

The fine was included in the plea agreement and the mine was also placed on three years of probation during Monday’s sentencing before U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Cavan in Billings.

Federal prosecutors said in 2013 and 2015, managers of the mine improperly disposed of mine waste called slurry by pumping it into abandoned sections of the mine. And twice in 2018, mine managers tried to cover up injuries that occurred at the mine by encouraging employees to report they had been hurt at home, the prosecutors said.

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Mines are required to report employee injuries to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The company’s vice president of underground operations gave $2,000 in cash to an employee whose finger was crushed at work and had to be amputated, prosecutors said. A miner who suffered a severe laceration on his head caused by falling rock had the days he was unable to work charged against his vacation time, court records said.

“This case holds Signal Peak Mine accountable for its utter disregard for environmental and worker health and safety standards,” U.S. Attorney Leif M. Johnson said in a statement. “Mine owners provided little in the way of meaningful oversight of mine operations as long as the mine’s managers could meet reported safety and production goals.

Johnson added: “That lax oversight fostered a climate of fraud, which today cost the mine $1 million in fines.”

At the time the plea agreement was reached, the company said a small group of Signal Peak employees had broken the law without the company’s knowledge and that the employees involved no longer worked for the mine.

The mine’s human resources director, Phil Stansell, did not immediately return a phone message Tuesday seeking comment.

The prosecution of the mine was part of a broad corruption investigation into mine management and operations that led to convictions of former mine officials and associates for embezzlement, tax evasion, bank fraud, money laundering, drug trafficking and firearms violations, officials said.

Larry Wayne Price Jr., the company’s former vice president of surface operations, was sentenced to five years in prison in 2020 for defrauding companies of $20 million.

Zachary Ruble, a former surface mine manager, was sentenced to probation for conspiring to defraud Signal Peak Energy of $2.3 million, federal prosecutors said.