Operator spokesperson Meg Gallagher told ILN that the mine was immediately shut down for a full investigation of the incident that left the worker, identified to local media by Saline County coroner Randy Reed as 61-year-old Thomas Brown, with blunt force trauma injuries that took his life.
“The appropriate state and federal officials have been contacted and the full circumstances are still unknown,” she said, adding that Peabody is mourning the loss of its employee.
“We express our deepest sympathies to family members and friends. We would not speculate about the incident until we have all the facts.”
Brown had more than three decades of mining experience at various underground operations, and had been with Willow Lake for more than three years.
The US Mine Safety and Health Administration did not respond with a statement by press time.
Last month, legal representatives for MSHA requested the fast-tracking of its legal proceedings against the mine relating to ongoing and repeated hazards.
The agency took its request to the federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, claiming it had already issued 12 orders for alleged serious mine safety and health standards violations and that the mine owed $US230,000 in penalties.
“This unusual legal action is being taken to achieve resolution of these citations based on the operator’s repeated violations of standards known to contribute to injuries and loss of life,” assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health Joseph Main said.
“Mining companies have an obligation to do all they can to protect their workers. Those who ignore safety and health practices continue to put their workers in harm’s way.”
MSHA argued that the operation’s violations recorded between December 2008 and January 2009 included failure to provide adequate protection from roof, face and rib falls within the mine; failure to prevent excessive accumulations of combustible materials in active working areas; failure to conduct adequate on-shift examinations for hazardous conditions; and failure to properly maintain equipment according to MSHA regulations.
The federal oversight agency has classified all 12 violations as significant and substantial (S&S), and have all stemmed from the operator’s “reckless disregard of, or indifference to, its safety and health responsibilities, intentional misconduct or a serious lack of reasonable care”
Shortly after the announcement in mid-June, Peabody responded to MSHA’s statements and noted that it would welcome the administration’s request for an expedited hearing.
“It is ironic that we routinely ask for such hearings to discuss long-standing and legitimate challenges where we believe basic differences exist. However, in this instance MSHA's response seems based more on building publicity than resolutions,” Peabody said.
“We take exception to the inflammatory, unfounded and confrontational words used by MSHA,” the company said, pointing out that the past three years had been the safest in the company’s history and represented a 43% improvement in its safety rate globally.
The company also noted that citations at Willow Lake had dropped 17% year-to-date and its significant violations had declined 26% from the prior year.
The 400-worker Willow Lake mine sold 3.7 million tons to its utility customers in 2008.
Brown’s death is the 41st in US coal in 2010.