ST. LOUIS (AP) -- A federal lawmaker wants one of the world's biggest coal producers to explain how it is ensuring safety at its Illinois holdings, including a mine that has been fined more than $230,000 since late 2008 that regulators say is still dangerous.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin's written request Tuesday to Peabody Energy Corp. came even as the St. Louis-based company defended its safety record against the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration's concerns about the Willow Lake mine near Equality, Ill.
A panel that decides disputed violations has accepted MSHA's request to hasten its review of the mine.
Durbin cited MHSA's announcement last week of its 12 citations of "significant and substantial" violations at Willow Lake's 450-worker operation in December 2008 and January 2009. Those citations include the operator's failure to provide adequate protection from mine collapses and prevent excessive accumulations of combustible materials. The MHSA said the site's on-shift checks for hazardous conditions and upkeep of equipment to federal standards are insufficient.
The MHSA said the violations resulted from the mine's "reckless disregard of or indifference to its safety and health responsibilities, intentional misconduct or a serious lack of reasonable care."
Peabody called such claims "inflammatory, unfounded and confrontational," arguing that it has made an aggressively thorough review of the mine's operations in pursuit of enhanced safety. The company said Willow Lake has received 17 percent fewer MSHA citations so far this year and 26 percent less "significant citations" from the previous year.
Every citation at Peabody sites "has been immediately addressed and resolved to MSHA's satisfaction prior to work recommencing," the company said last week, believing MSHA's push for the expedited hearing was "based more on building publicity than resolutions."
The MHSA has been cracking down on safety following several major U.S. mining disasters.
In his letter to Gregory Boyce, Peabody's chairman and chief executive, Durbin said the recent deadly mining accidents in West Virginia and Kentucky underscore that "mining remains a dangerous profession, and we all must work to ensure our miners have a safe workplace."
He called on the company to elaborate on its "commitment to safety" involving its Illinois operations -- something the lawmaker called a "shared goal."
"It is clear that the 21st century Illinois coal miner is highly skilled and productive worker," Durbin wrote.
In a statement Wednesday, Peabody called its safety record "outstanding and far better than the vast majority of industries in the U.S. and around the globe."
Indicating that the mining company thinks the matter has been politicized, Peabody said it was "unfortunate that some are more interested in publicity and politics than a real discussion over best practices for safety."
MSHA's impatience with the Willow Lake mine comes as the agency has tried to crack down on mines with a history of serious violations following an explosion that killed 29 men at Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch in West Virginia. The blast is the nation's worst coal mine disaster in 40 years.
Willow Lake, which opened in 2002, produced 3.4 million tons of the black ore last year, according to MSHA's website. The mine and its adjacent site -- where the coal is cleaned for shipment, often to Midwest utilities -- runs two shifts a day seven days a week throughout the year, according to Peabody's website.
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