WASHINGTON – The Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission has ruled unanimously that the operator of a Francisco, Indiana coal mine violated mandatory safety standards when it continued to operate an energized drill during a methane inundation, creating the risk of a catastrophic explosion.
On Aug. 24, 2022, the commission determined that allowing the drill to remain energized, and continuing to work, were unwarrantable failures. The commission also determined that the mine manager who oversaw the dangerous work was personally liable for the violations.
“The Mine Act is clear that operators have the ultimate responsibility to prevent mining hazards and dangerous working conditions,” said Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health Chris Williamson. “The U.S. Department of Labor will continue to enforce the law and hold mine operators accountable when they put lives at risk and fail to protect miners’ safety and health.”
The Mine Safety and Health Administration issued two citations: one for failure to deenergize the drill, and the other for performing work. MSHA designated both as “unwarrantable failures” to comply with mandatory standards, a designation that establishes more severe consequences for violations caused by aggravated conduct. The commission assessed a penalty of $96,000 on Peabody Midwest and a $6,000 penalty on the manager.
MSHA also proposed a penalty against the manager who supervised the work, because he knew or should have known that he was required to shut down the drill and stop work.
Peabody Midwest was conducting exploratory drilling in an underground coal mine when the drill punched through the coal bed and into an old mine. Methane gas began blasting through the drill hole. Methane-measuring devices indicated that the methane was over five percent by volume, into the range where it is explosive if an ignition source is introduced to the atmosphere. A rotating drill or any energized electrical equipment can be an ignition source.
MSHA mandatory standards require operators to take certain action when the concentration of methane rises above 1.5 percent by volume. Operators must evacuate the area, deenergize equipment and disconnect it at the power source, and perform “no other work” until methane levels fall below one percent. Instead of doing so, Peabody Midwest continued to run the drill, pulling out drill bits in attempt to clear the hole so that it could be plugged.
Susannah Maltz of the Office of the Solicitor handled the case before the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.