BILLINGS - The Signal Peak coal mine near Roundup was ordered to pay a $1 million fine on Monday after previously admitting that senior mine managers directed employees to regularly violate health and safety standards.
The fine was part of a plea agreement between federal prosecutors and mine officials signed last October. The company was also sentenced to three years probation.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy Cavan imposed the sentence during a hearing Monday in U.S. District Court in Billings.
When imposing the sentence, Cavan said senior Signal Peak officials needed to take responsibility for the company's actions.
“Signal Peak can’t sluff this off as the actions of a few bad actors,” he said.
The company's attorney, John Sullivan, told the judge the company would pay the substantial fine immediately after the court hearing.
“Signal Peak gets it," Sullivan said. "They’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Prosecutors alleged in a criminal complaint the owners of the underground coal mine near Roundup illegally disposed of mine waste and covered up employee injuries.
Federal prosecutors alleged that senior mine managers directed employees to regularly violate health and safety standards outlined in the Mine Safety and Health Act from 2013 to 2018.
In the summer of 2013, mine managers directed employees to illegally pump mine waste, known as slurry, into abandoned sections of the mine, according to prosecutors. Slurry contains wastewater, industrial chemicals, and unprocessed soil containing heavy metals, including arsenic and lead over groundwater tolerances.
After a section was full, mine managers directed employees to drill two boreholes into the ground to dispose of more mine waste. The pumping occurred for about six weeks until a seal breached, flooding waste into the mine itself, prosecutors said.
In 2018, mine managers encouraged, and even outright bribed, employees to lie about on-the-job injuries, according to prosecutors.
In the first case, an employee's finger was crushed moving mining equipment, requiring amputation. A safety manager drove him to the hospital, and the mine's vice president of operations called him and urged him to not report the injury as work-related. The employee then stated the injury happened at home, and the vice president gave him an envelope with $2,000, according to prosecutors.
A second employee was struck by falling rock and suffered a severe cut on his head. The safety manager was called, and instead of taking him to the hospital, took him home.
The employee waited until the next day to go to the hospital and said the injury happened at home. He returned to work and was unable to complete several shifts because of his injury. His lost time was charged against vacation leave without his approval, according to prosecutors.