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Newspaper: Illinois Mine Amasses Infractions, Fines



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GALATIA, Ill. (AP) -- An Illinois mine run by the company that co-owns the Utah coal mine where six workers are trapped had more safety-related fines in the first half of this year than all of Illinois' 10 other underground coal mines combined, according to a published report.

The Galatia mine amassed 999 safety violations and $1.5 million in fines from January through June, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Thursday, citing U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data. The mine had 973 violations in all of 2006, MSHA's numbers show.

Illinois' largest underground mine, Galatia is run by American Coal Co., a subsidiary of Cleveland-based Murray Energy Corp. Murray's holdings also include the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah where six workers remain trapped after a collapse earlier this month.

There have been no fatalities at the Galatia mine, about two hours southeast of St. Louis, since Murray Energy bought it in 1998, and the injury rate has declined in recent years, the newspaper said.

But the fines have continued to mount, largely because of a 2006 law that established stiffer civil penalties for safety violations, the newspaper said.

The fines so far this year are nearly triple the $548,000 for all of last year, and 50 percent more than the total of fines against operators of the state's 10 other underground coal mines, the Post-Dispatch reported.

Murray Energy has been fined more than $3 million since 1999, and paid many of those penalties through 2004, according to MSHA's Web site. But the company has paid just $67,745 toward this year's total, according to MSHA.

The number of violations also has been an issue. Violations more than doubled between 2004 and 2005 -- from more than 650 to more than 1,500 -- and fell to fewer than 1,000 last year, according to data on the MSHA's Web site.

By comparison, Illinois' second-biggest underground mine in terms of production, the Willow Lake site run by Big Ridge Inc., has been cited for 178 violations so far this year, according to MSHA.

Telephone messages left Thursday by The Associated Press with Galatia-based American Coal and at Murray Energy's Ohio headquarters were not immediately returned.

Of this year's alleged violations at Galatia through June, 216 were classified as "significant and substantial," meaning they could have led to serious safety consequences. And 27 of them were so-called unwarrantable failures -- more egregious violations that a mine operator may have been previously warned about.

The most frequent high-dollar fines involve a rule prohibiting accumulation of coal dust, loose coal or other combustible materials that could trigger a fire or explosion.

But Rob Moore, Murray Energy's vice president, earlier this month defended the company's safety record. While in Utah after the mine collapse there, Moore said "every mine has violations and our record (in Utah), the violations we have received, have not been anything out of the ordinary -- dust on the belt rollers, things of that nature, just typical violations and, relative to the safety of this mine, it's a safe mine."

"All of our mines are safe mines," he said.

The 750-worker Galatia site -- three mines operating under a single name and from a single portal -- produced 7.2 million tons of coal last year, or 22 percent of the state's total. It also accounted for more than 40 percent of all the safety violations cited by federal inspectors.

David Whitcomb, assistant manager for the MSHA's district office in Vincennes, Ind., which covers mining safety in Illinois, declined to discuss Galatia's safety record. Messages left with the MSHA's national office were not immediately returned.

A spokesman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, under which the mine-inspecting Office of Mines and Minerals operates, said a higher number of violations or fines could be the result of changes in the way violations are recorded.

Now, Chris McCloud said, inspectors "simply record any violation that's seen, even if it was corrected when the inspector was there," even if it was as simple as a gas can too close to a mine entrance. "That wasn't the way it was in the past," McCloud said.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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