By Albert Samaha
By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
By Jesse Jarnow
By Eric Tsetsi
WASHINGTON, D.C.The Upshur County coal mine where 13 miners were trapped, just outside Tallmansville, West Virginia, has had a rash of safety problems. The Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette reports the Sago Mine had a "history of roof falls and serious safety violations."
Sago management claims the explosion underground resulted from a lightning strike, but there is skepticism about whether lighting could have followed a circuitous path into the mine. Five of the 13 trapped workers are 50 years of age or older, and one of them is 61.
Skepticism about the lightning explanation grew after company officials admitted they had called federal and state mine-safety personnel before calling 911.
These accidents and violations recorded in government records took place at a time when the coal industry was ramping up to handle the energy crisis, and when critics claim health and safety standards have been downgraded.
The Upshur dig is nonunion. In 2004, the Sago Mine reported an injury rate three times that of similar-sized small mines nationwide, the Gazette said. Last year, the Anker West Virginia Mining Co., which then was running the mine, paid $24,000 for 200 alleged violations. In the last six months of 2005, the Sago Mine reported a dozen accidental roof falls, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. Three of those accidents occurred after International Coal Group finished buying the mine and ramped up production.
Janet Keating, co-director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, based in West Virginia, said in an interview, "Partly the problem is that the current administration is pro-coal and pro-energy. It gets so much funding from campaign contributions from these industries."
Out of $2.3 million in contributions to federal candidates during the 2004 election cycle, coal companies put up $2.3 million with 90 percent going to Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
So, Keating said, politicians toe the coal industry line, claiming on the one hand that coal production is one of the most regulated industries in the country, while on the other making it impossible for regulators to enforce those regulations. "Doesn't matter if it's surface or underground," she said. "Federal and state agencies do not have enough funding. Mandates come down from the top."
Asked about the lightning theory by the Daily Mail, Davitt McAteer, top mine safety official in the Clinton administration, said, "It's possible. I can remember 10 instances of having seals blown out because of heavy thunderstorms through southern Alabama," he said. "I have read and known about lightning hitting a radio antenna or something and jumping to a metal pipe and it goes down and looks for an exit and can't find one and then it knocks out seals."
He added, "I have not known of one to cause the type of explosion we're talking about here."
Additional reporting: Michael Roston