Groups want DEQ to halt Bull Mountain’s mine permit

Criminal charges, worker safety, environmental risks part of Signal Peak’s recent problems

By: - September 18, 2022 9:39 am

Part of the Signal Peak coal mine near Roundup, Montana (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Environmental groups from Montana have petitioned the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to revoke operating permits for a coal company with ties to Russia and an embattled energy company, as well as criminal activity by recently departed executives.

Last month, Northern Plains Resource Council, Earthjustice, the Montana Environmental Information Center, Western Environmental Law Center and the Sierra Club formally petitioned the DEQ to revoke Signal Peak Energy’s operating permit for the Bull Mountain Mine near Roundup.

This formal process is followed by a number of other complaints lodged against the company at the state and federal level.

Signal Peak Energy was given the chance to comment for this story, but did not respond to requests by the Daily Montanan.

The company has faced a number of problematic issues both related to the mining operations in Roundup and at the corporate level.

For example, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has called Signal Peak “a den of thievery” for executives who engaged in a number of activities including tax evasion, cocaine trafficking, firearms violations, bribery and money laundering.

Larry Price, a former Signal Peak executive, built a palatial mansion in Billings only to lose it in a series of court cases. He also faked his own kidnapping.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice successfully prosecuted the company and its leaders for multiple counts of health and safety violations. They have fined the company $1 million and put the company on probation for three years.

Moira Davin, a spokeswoman for the Montana DEQ, acknowledged that the state DEQ does have the power to shut down a mining operation, but could not say whether the department was currently contemplating any action.

Dangerous working conditions

In January, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and several other federal agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the federal Department of Labor and the Environmental Protection Agency, announced the conclusion of a case that led to nine individuals being charged, including the mine’s vice president and associates.

Court documents show a repeated and concerted effort to cover up information, including dangerous working conditions.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said that the unsafe working conditions were done with the knowledge and approval that went all the way to the company’s CEO. The company admitted to lying about expenses, and lying about its safety records.

It also admitted to pumping wastewater down mine bore holes as well as pumping slurry into abandoned parts of the mine, only to have it flood other parts of the mine.

The court documents show that company officials also pressured workers not to report injuries.

For example, one worker’s hand was injured so badly that one of his fingers had to be amputated.

According to court records and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, after the incident happened, the worker had a conversation with the vice-president of underground operations on the way to hospital. The vice president asked the worker not to report the injury as work-related and said “he would make it worthwhile.”

The safety manager dropped the man off at the hospital, but did not accompany him inside, which is standard mine procedure. The worker told the healthcare staff that he’d gotten the injury at home and it was not work related. When the mine worker returned to work – some time later – the vice president gave the employee an “envelope containing $2,000,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In May 2018, Signal Peak failed to report another injury as mandated by law. Another miner who was working underground was hit in the head when rock “sluffed off” causing “a severe laceration.” The safety manager of the mine met the worker and drove him away from the mine, intending to take him to the hospital, the court documents said.

Instead, the safety manager drove the employee home. The miner waited until the next morning to seek medical attention, and stated his injury was caused “by a shelf falling on his head in the garage of his home.”

The worker returned to work for his next scheduled shift, but he was unable to complete that shift or several others, but was charged against his vacation leave without his approval for the missed work. 

Criminal troubles

Price, the former Signal Peak vice president of surface operations, was sentenced to defrauding the companies of $20 million, and Zachary Ruble, former surface mine manager, was sentenced to probation for conspiring to defraud the company of more than $2.3 million.

Then U.S. District Attorney Kurt Alme said that Price had defrauded many out of their entire life savings “all so he could live in luxury.”

Dale Musgrave, a former vice president of underground operations, reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors, pleading guilty to conspiracy to submit false statement in records.

A plea agreement calls for the government to seek the dismissal of two counts of cocaine trafficking, one count of false statements in mine records and one count of false statement at sentencing if the court accepts the agreement.

Another aspect of Signal Peak’s dealing includes Stephen Casher, who was a former officer with Rocky Mountain Bank, sentenced to prison for money laundering and bank fraud, and James and Timilynn Kisling, who were sentenced to probation and fined for a tax evasion scheme involving Price’s Ironwood mansion.

Two other men were convicted in the case – Mark Luciano of Nevada who was sentenced to prison for cocaine trafficking and Todd A. Irwin, who was the secretary to Price who was sentenced to probation as a felon in possession of firearms.

Russian ties

Postscript

After this article was published, Gunvor responded denying this characterization of its company, pointing out that one of its co-founders, Gennady Timchenko, was suspected of having close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, Timchenko is a former shareholder, and no longer owns company stock or is part of Gunvor. The company, though a spokesman stated, “Specifically, the U.S. Treasury and Office for Foreign Assets Control has confirmed that Gunvor should not be affected by sanctions on the company’s former shareholder, Mr. Timchenko.” The company is currently owned by fellow co-founder Torbjörn Törnqvist and Gunvor employees.

Though it was given a chance to comment on the article prior to publication via Signal Peak, no one associated with Gunvor responded.

Gunvor Group, Ltd., owns one-third of the coal mining operation, and the environmental groups said the permits should be revoked because Signal Peak refuses to disclose the ownership behind the group. Gunvor has ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the United States Treasury said that Putin has investments in the company and may even have access to funds. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department has characterized Gunvor as a “front for massive corruption.”

First Energy connection

Besides Gunvor, one-third of Global Mining Holding Company is owned by energy corporation FirstEnergy, which itself has found itself in a massive bribery scandal in Ohio where the company is based.

According to the Ohio Capital Journal, the company stated it paid $60 million into an account controlled by then-Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, a Republican, and $4.3 million to a business operated by then-Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Chairman Sam Randazzo in exchange for “official action” in the form of legislation and regulatory decisions.

Investigators for the public service commission in Ohio have agreed to freeze an investigation into the company for as long as six months while federal prosecutors and investigators complete a “parallel” criminal investigation.

The Capital Journal also reported FirstEnergy signed a deferred prosecution agreement last summer, agreeing to pay a $230 million penalty and cooperate with prosecutors to possibly avert a criminal charge of honest services wire fraud.

On Friday, FirstEnergy CEO Steve Strah, who had led the company through the scandal, announced his immediate retirement with no severance pay or bonuses, the company reported. He had been with the company for 38 years.

“The abrupt change comes after a board shake-up and a management review,” the Columbus Dispatch reported.

The other remaining one-third of the holding company that owns Signal Peak Mining is Boich Companies of Columbus, Ohio.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.

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