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MSHA says Illinois mine tried to conceal underground fire

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The U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration has cited a coal mine operator for continuing to operate a mine without evacuating miners with a fire underground and failing to notify MSHA of the fire. The fire broke out on a longwall section on Aug. 13, 2021.

MSHA has proposed nearly $1.2 million in civil penalties to M-Class Mining LLC, a Macedonia, Illinois, coal mine operator.

Late on the morning of Aug. 14, 2021, after learning of the unextinguished fire through an anonymous complaint, MSHA issued an order to withdraw all miners from the mine and began an accident investigation. MSHA said the investigation found that the operator allowed continued coal production and did not take immediate actions to protect the safety and health of miners.

MSHA inspectors determined M-Class Mining LLC failed to follow the approved Mine Emergency Evacuation and Firefighting Program and evacuate the miners; did not notify MSHA within 15 minutes of the fire’s start as the law requires; and failed to fully comply with federal orders to withdraw miners from the mine.

“M-Class Mining LLC deliberately jeopardized the lives of the very miners it was responsible for protecting, and violated numerous important safety and health standards in the process,” said Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health Chris Williamson. “The fact that this operator continued business as usual while miners underground had no idea there was an ongoing fire hazard more than justifies the civil penalties that we propose.”

MSHA issued 14 citations to the M-Class mine, including 10 related to what MSHA said was the operator’s reckless disregard for the miners’ safety and health. Two of the 10 proposed citations are classified as flagrant: for the operator not evacuating the mine when the fire was located, and for allowing miners to work underground without being tracked by the mine tracking system. A flagrant violation may be assessed the highest penalty allowed by law.

M-Class Mining LLC has 30 days to pay or contest the violation or penalties to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.

According to MSHA data, since 2008 there have been fatal accidents at M-Class Mining’s MC-1 mine near Macedonia on Sept. 23, 2009; April 11, 2010; Nov. 4, 2013; May 14, 2014; and Dec. 8, 2015.

On Jan. 7, 2022, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul filed a lawsuit against Sugar Camp Energy, LLC alleging that the company violated the Illinois Environmental Protection Act by causing “forever chemicals” to be discharged into waters near one of its coal mines. The lawsuit alleges Sugar Camp used firefighting foam which contained unauthorized per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in an attempt to fight the fire which broke out in one of its mines around Aug. 14, 2021. The lawsuit says the foam was used in October.

Sugar Camp owns the complex which includes M-Class Mining’s MC-1 Mine the Viking Mine.

“Sugar Camp jeopardized public safety and irresponsibly violated both state environmental statutes and the constraints of its permit by misusing dangerous ‘forever chemicals’,” Raoul said. “Exposure to such chemicals can cause long-lasting damage to the environment and poses a serious risk to public health. My office will work to ensure that Sugar Camp is held accountable for the damage it has done by using these chemicals.”

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