Durbin calls for mine safety improvement

The Southern
June 17, 2010
By: Tom Barker

A Southern Illinois coal mine company has been cited numerous times for safety violations in recent years, and an Illinois senator is calling for improvements.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Springfield, sent a letter to the chairman and CEO of St. Louis-based Peabody Energy on Tuesday, asking what steps the company is taking to improve safety and reduce violations at its Willow Lake mine near Equality in Gallatin County.

"The coal industry is vital to Illinois' economy, bringing jobs and millions of dollars in federal funding to our state for coal research in places like Decatur and Mattoon," Durbin said. "But when it comes to mining, my number one concern is safety."

The Mine Safety and Health Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Labor, has cited Peabody for at least a dozen significant violations at Willow Lake since 2008, with fines since then totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The significant violations cited include the company's failure to provide adequate protection from potential mine collapses and prevent excessive accumulations of combustible materials, like coal dust, believed to have contributed to the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia.

"In light of the recent tragedy at Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, Congress is weighing federal standards and enforcement of mine safety law," Durbin said.

"I am interested in hearing from federal, state and local agencies, as well as the mine workers and companies like Peabody, and bringing everyone into a discussion of how to ensure that miners in Illinois and around the country are working in the safest mines possible."

In response, Peabody Energy says its mines are safer than they ever have been and the company has taken aggressive steps to improve Willow Lake's incidence rate. Peabody Energy Spokesperson Meg Gallagher said MSHA citations for significant violations at Willow Lake have decreased 26 percent from last year.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Gallagher said Durbin's new letter publicizes "an old dispute related to citations that were long ago remedied."

"It is unfortunate that some are more interested in publicity and politics than a real discussion over best practices for safety," she said. "Peabody's safety record is outstanding and far better than the vast majority of industries in the U.S. and around the globe.

"We will be happy to have those conversations with the Senator should he be interested in the facts," she added.