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Signal Peak mine investigations continuing

Signal Peak mine investigations continuing

Federal mine safety officials will be at the Signal Peak Energy coal mine south of Roundup this week to evaluate the underground mine’s ventilation system after finding low oxygen and elevated carbon monoxide levels earlier this month.

An inspector with the Mine Safety and Health Administration ordered the mine shut down on Jan. 19 to correct a ventilation system and modified the order on Jan. 21 to allow mining under a revised plan pending review of the system’s performance, MSHA officials said Monday.

MSHA issued Signal Peak two violation notices related to ventilation, said Kevin Stricklin, administrator of MSHA’s Coal Mine Safety and Heath program in Washington, D.C.

“The carbon monoxide was higher than we expected to see,’’ he said on Monday. “We will have people go underground tomorrow.’’

MSHA will decide whether to lift or to reinstate the closure order, Stricklin said.

One of the violations, issued Jan. 19, was classified as “significant and substantial,’’ which means there is potential for someone to be injured if the problem is not corrected. The violation also was considered to be of high negligence.

Any “significant and substantial’’ violation is considered serious, Stricklin said.

About 35 percent of the violation notices MSHA issues are considered “significant and substantial, ’’ he said, and it is not unusual for a mine to get one or a closure order. Penalties are determined later and can be challenged by the mine.

Oxygen levels in an area of the mine were 17.7 percent and 18 percent, while the minimum required is 19.5 percent in area where people are required to travel.

A second violation was for an ineffective ventilation system that is supposed to dilute carbon monoxide.

MSHA gave the mine a reasonable amount of time to correct the problem but ordered the mine shut down when it determined the mine was not taking enough action, Stricklin said. The company then revised its plan later in the week and was allowed to resume mining under a modified order.

MSHA inspects mines every quarter.

John DeMichiei, Signal Peak’s president, could not be reached for comment Monday.

The Signal Peak mine, which uses a large machine called a longwall miner to scrape and transport coal from underground seams, is the state’s only underground coal mine. The longwall operation began last fall.

Meanwhile, MSHA investigations are continuing into two accidents that involved a fatality on Jan. 2 and a serious injury on Dec. 23. Investigations normally take 45 days to 60 days and sometimes longer before reports are issued, Stricklin said.

Last year, the mine produced 540,000 tons of coal in its first full year of operation, according to MSHA. The agency issued 178 citations in 2009 and assessed about $63,000 in proposed penalties, of which the company has paid about $29,000.

This year, MSHA has issued Signal Peak 10 citations or orders and has not yet assessed any penalties.

Signal Peak, which is owned by the Boich Group of Ohio and FirstEnergy, an Ohio utility, took over mine operations in 2008 from Bull Mountain Coal Mining Inc.

Contact Clair Johnson at cjohnson@billingsgazette.com or 657-1282.

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