Despite Collapses, Improvement Seen at Montana Mine

By MATTHEW BROWN | August 23, 2011

The operator of Montana’s only underground coal mine expects to resume full operations this week after being hit with multiple safety citations and two temporary shut-downs following a series of roof collapses.

No one was injured in the four collapses, which occurred between July 18 and Aug. 12 at Signal Peak Energy’s three-year-old Bull Mountain Mine near Roundup.

Mine president John DeMichiei said efforts to put in new supports to shore up damaged sections of roof were almost completed. That will allow workers assigned to repair duties to return to mining early in the week, he said.

Last November, Signal Peak was placed on notice that it faced potentially severe sanctions after racking up dozens of serious safety violations in its first two years of operation. Despite the recent roof troubles, federal safety officials said they have seen improvements at Bull Mountain since that notice was issued.

Three injuries, none of them fatal, have been reported so far this year at the mine, which employs 280 people. That compares to 16 injuries in each of the last two years, including a miner who lost his foot and a mechanic killed last year when a truck he was working on slipped off a jack stand and crushed him.

“They’re getting better,” said Allyn Davis, district manager for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. “They started an underground mine in an area of the country that had no experienced miners, so they’ve been picking up slowly more experienced personnel.”

During the past 12 months, inspectors at Bull Mountain found 36 violations classified as “significant and substantial” – meaning they could result in serious injury or illness.

The mine had 59 such violations over a 12 month span prior to last year’s announcement that it was one of 14 mines nationwide that federal officials identified as having a pattern of safety lapses.

Safety officials slapped the mine with more than $174,000 in penalties last year. So far in 2011, that figure stands at $12,142. Penalties for some violations have yet to be assessed.

DeMichiei said some of the violations cited by officials over the last two years were contested and later modified. But he acknowledged that the mine has struggled with a relatively inexperienced workforce and high rates of turnover.

“Inexperienced individuals have been going through very intensive training and the workforce is gaining more experience,” he said. “We were also fortunate enough to bring on several experienced foremen. You get that combination of factors, you feel much better.”

DeMichiei added that he expects the roof problems will subside as more support is added in the areas that collapsed. The collapses occurred roughly 800 feet beneath the surface – about twice as deep as other areas the company intends to mine.

Bull Mountain is jointly owned by FirstEnergy Corp. and Boich Companies, both of Ohio. It produced 4.8 million tons of coal last year.

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