Attorneys for the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration have asked the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission to expedite legal proceedings against Big Ridge Inc. to prevent continuing harm to miners who are exposed to ongoing dangers at Big Ridge's Willow Lake Portal mine in Galatia, Ill. According to a press release, MSHA issued 12 orders and assessed penalties of $230,000 for alleged serious violations of mine safety and health standards.

"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," said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. "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." The alleged violations by Big Ridge Inc. in December 2008 and January 2009 include failure to provide adequate protection from roof, face and rib falls within the mine; to prevent excessive accumulations of combustible materials in active working areas; to conduct adequate on-shift examinations for hazardous conditions; and to properly maintain equipment according to MSHA regulations.

MSHA deemed all 12 of the orders to be "significant and substantial" because they are likely to result in serious injury or illness to the miners. MSHA also alleged that the violations resulted from Big Ridge's reckless disregard of or indifference to its safety and health responsibilities, intentional misconduct or a serious lack of reasonable care.

On March 15, MSHA began a "Rules to Live By" outreach and enforcement initiative designed to spotlight the safety and health standards that are most frequently cited during fatal accident investigations. Two of the 12 orders are for violations relating to priority standards highlighted in the "Rules to Live By" initiative, one for roof support (30 CFR 75.202) and one for failure to maintain equipment in safe operating condition (30 CFR 75.1725(a)). Since these two violations were issued, Big Ridge has been cited for 78 additional violations of 75.202 and 13 additional violations of 75.1725(a), including citations issued to the mine operator as recently as last month.

The Willow Lake Portal mine is an underground coal mining operation and production plant located in Saline County, Ill., and employs approximately 450 people year-round.