BILLINGS – A central Montana coal mine pleaded guilty Thursday to federal charges the company violated environmental and employee safety regulations as part of a plea agreement that calls for a $1 million fine, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Montana said.
Signal Peak Energy, through a representative, pleaded guilty to four counts of willful violation of health and safety standards. The agreement calls for a $250,000 fine for each misdemeanor violation and a probationary sentence. If the court rejects the plea agreement, the company can withdraw it and go to trial.
A sentencing date before U.S. District Judge Susan Watters has not yet been set.
Federal prosecutors said in 2013 and 2015, managers of the mine near Roundup improperly disposed of mine waste called slurry by pumping it into abandoned sections of the mine. And twice in 2018, mine managers tried to cover up injuries that occurred at the mine by encouraging employees to report the injuries had happened at home. Mines are required to report employee injuries to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The vice president of underground operations gave $2,000 in cash to an employee whose finger was crushed at work and had to be amputated, prosecutors said. A miner who suffered a severe laceration on his head caused by falling rock had the days he was unable to work charged against his vacation time, court records said.
“Signal Peak’s conduct showed a blatant and callous disregard for its own workers’ health and safety and for protecting the environment,” Acting U.S. Attorney Leif Johnson said in a statement.
The prosecution of the mine is part of a broad corruption investigation into mine management and operations that led to convictions of former mine officials and associates for embezzlement, tax evasion, bank fraud, money laundering, drug trafficking and firearms violations.
Larry Wayne Price Jr., a former vice president of surface operations, is serving a five -year prison sentence for defrauding companies of $20 million. Zachary Ruble, a former surface mine manager, was sentenced to probation for conspiring to defraud Signal Peak Energy of $2.3 million, federal prosecutors said.
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