BILLINGS – Signal Peak Energy, LLC, which operates an underground coal mine near Roundup, today admitted to criminal charges that it willfully violated health and safety standards and has agreed to pay a $1 million fine as part of proposed plea agreement, Acting U.S. Attorney Leif M. Johnson said.
Signal Peak Energy, through a representative, pleaded guilty during an initial appearance and plea hearing to an information charging it with four counts of willful violation of a health and safety standard, a misdemeanor. The maximum penalty is a $250,000 fine.
A plea agreement recommends that a criminal fine of $250,000 for each count of conviction, for a total fine of $1 million, is the appropriate disposition of the case. The parties further agree that a sentence of probation is appropriate. If the court accepts the plea agreement, the company does not have an automatic right to withdraw its guilty pleas. If the court rejects the plea agreement, the company can withdraw its guilty pleas and proceed to trial.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy J. Cavan presided. A sentencing date before U.S. District Judge Susan P. Watters has not yet been set.
“Signal Peak’s conduct showed a blatant and callous disregard for its own workers’ health and safety and for protecting the environment. Companies that habitually and willfully violate regulations will be investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” Acting U.S. Attorney Johnson said.
The Signal Peak Energy prosecution is part of a broad corruption investigation into mine management and operations that resulted in not only worker safety and environmental misdemeanor convictions, but also in individual convictions and charges for some former mine officials and associates for embezzlement, tax evasion, bank fraud, money laundering, drugs and firearms violations.
Individual convictions of former mine officials included Larry Wayne Price, Jr., former vice president of surface operations, who was sentenced to prison for defrauding companies of $20 million; and Zachary Ruble, former surface mine manager, who was sentenced to probation for conspiring to defraud Signal Peak Energy of $2.3 million.
A third former mine official, Dale Lee Musgrave, former vice president of underground operations, has pleaded not guilty to an indictment alleging cocaine trafficking and false statements in mine records and is pending trial.
Associated individual cases include Stephen P. Casher, a former Rocky Mountain Bank loan officer, who was sentenced to prison and fined on bank fraud and money laundering charges for a loan scheme involving Larry Price Jr.; James and Timilynn Kisling, owners of Kisling Quality Builders, who were sentenced to probation and fined for conviction of tax evasion in a scheme involving the construction of Larry Price Jr.’s Billings residence; Mark Luciano, a Nevada resident who was sentenced to prison for conviction on trafficking cocaine; and Todd Alan Irwin, a secretary to Larry Price, Jr., who was sentenced to probation for conviction of felon in possession of firearms.
Robert Wayne Ramsey, owner of Peters Equipment Company, has been charged by an information with wire fraud in an alleged equipment sale scheme involving Signal Peak Energy and is pending arraignment.
In the Signal Peak Energy case, the government alleged in court documents that from 2013 through 2018, Signal Peak Energy habitually violated mandatory health and safety standards in the Mine Safety and Health Act during the mine’s operation. These violations included both environmental safety and worker safety standards. These violations also occurred with the full knowledge, direction and participation of the mine’s most senior management during that period, including the president and CEO, the vice president of surface operations, the vice president of underground operations and the safety manager.
The government further alleged that during the summer of 2013, Signal Peak Energy’s senior managers directed mine employees to improperly dispose of mine waste by pumping the waste into abandoned sections of the mine. This waste, known as “slurry,” consisted of wastewater, industrial chemicals used in the mining process and unprocessed soil containing heavy metals, including arsenic and lead over groundwater tolerances. Mine employees pumped this slurry into the abandoned section of the mine for about two weeks, until the section was full. Disposing mine waste in this manner required approval of both the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which Signal Peak Energy did not obtain.
In the spring of 2015, the government alleged, Signal Peak Energy agents commissioned the drilling of two bore holes through the ground that led to another abandoned section of the mine. Senior mine managers directed employees to pump more slurry into the abandoned section through the bore holes. This slurry was similar to the slurry improperly disposed of in 2013. Estimates vary, but this pumping occurred for up to six weeks. The pumping stopped after a witness discovered that seals between the abandoned mine works and the operating mine had been breached, causing flooding in the areas of the operating mine. Signal Peak Energy obtained a permit to inject water into the ground through the bore holes, but this permit did not allow for the disposal of slurry waste.
In January 2018, Signal Peak Energy failed to report as required the injury of an employee, identified as John Doe 1, who was working at the mine when his finger was crushed and required amputation. Doe 1 was moving large mining equipment as part of his duties when some of this equipment fell onto his hand. Doe 1met with the safety manager, who began driving him to the hospital for medical treatment. On the way, Doe 1 had a telephone conversation with the vice president of underground operations. The vice president of underground operations pressured Doe 1 not to report the injury as work related and said that he would make it worthwhile for Doe 1. The safety manager witnessed this but did not intervene. The safety manager then dropped off Doe 1 at the hospital rather than accompanying him inside pursuant to mine policy. Doe 1 falsely stated that the injury had occurred at home and was not work related. When Doe 1 returned to work sometime later, the vice president of underground operations gave Doe 1 an envelope containing $2,000.
In May 2018, Signal Peak Energy again failed to report an injury as mandated. An employee, identified as John Doe 2, was working in the underground portion of the mine when rock sluffed off the wall and onto Doe 2’s head, causing a severe laceration. The shift manager immediately called the safety manager. The safety manager met Doe 2 and drove Doe 2 away from the mine with the stated intention to take Doe 2 to the hospital. Instead, the safety manager drove Doe 2 home. Doe 2 waited until the next morning to seek medical attention and falsely stated the injury had been caused by a shelf falling on his head in the garage of his home. Doctors treated the laceration and Doe 2 returned to work for his next scheduled shift. Doe 2 was unable to complete the shift or several of the following shifts because of his injuries. Doe 2’s lost time was charged against his vacation leave without his approval.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Colin M. Rubich, Zeno B. Baucus and Timothy Tatarka are prosecuting the case, which was investigated by the IRS, FBI and Environmental Protection Agency.
PACER case reference. 21-79.
Clair J. Howard
Public Affairs Officer