Mine Safety: Digging for Answers

Early probe of the Sago disaster raises explosive questions

 WASHINGTON, D.C.—Preliminary investigations into the disaster at West Virginia's Sago Mine are turning up serious questions—among them whether the federal government will mount an aggressive drive for the truth about the January 2 disaster, in which 12 coal miners were killed.

A heated political clash at a congressional hearing on mine safety Thursday suggests that the leadership necessary for an all-out effort is unlikely to come from the U.S. Congress or the Bush administration.

At the hearing, held by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce's subcommittee on workforce protections, California Democrat George Miller demanded to continue interrogating witnesses from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in a second round of questioning. But the subcommittee's chairman, Georgia Republican Charlie Norwood, gaveled the session to an end over Miller's loud objections. Miller later told reporters the hearing seemed designed to polish the image of the MSHA; a subcommittee spokesperson denied that charge and said Miller should know more hearings are forthcoming.

Investigations instigated at the state level may yet prove more effective. After the Sago accident, West Virginia governor Joe Manchin pushed new stiffer health and safety regulations through the state legislature and set up his own probe, led by Davitt McAteer, the former head of the Labor Department's mine safety unit and a longtime coal industry reformer. Manchin promised McAteer subpoena power if he needs it.

But that inquiry has run into its own complications. On Wednesday the governor, at the request of the miners' widows, was forced to delay a public hearing scheduled for mid-March until May 2. According to people with firsthand knowledge of the investigation, the change comes in deference to attorneys eyeing personal-damage suits on behalf of the Sago widows. If these private attorneys can get the governor's investigation to lay out a record of what happened, they stand to have a much easier time in their own discovery procedures.

It is too early for West Virginia investigators to have reached any conclusions about the causes of either the explosion at the Sago dig or the failure of the rescue efforts, but knowledgeable sources in both West Virginia and Washington say investigators are beginning to gather previously unknown details. What they're learning could raise serious questions about public and private commitments to mine safety.

Among the points of inquiry:

  • Did a mistake in the rescue efforts contribute to the miner's deaths? The mine operators may have botched the rescue by blowing clean air into the mine, where it ran into smoke and noxious fumes from the explosion heading for the surface. If that turns out to be the case, the fresh air might have forced the foul cloud back into the tiny space where the miners were huddled.
  • Why couldn't the miners communicate with people on the surface? Not long after the accident, the CEO of International Coal Group, which owns Sago, told USA Today that the miners had an escape route but weren't aware of it. "Sadly, they could have come out and made it to safety," said Ben Hatfield But, he continued, the only communication was by phone over a system connected by wires, and the lines were destroyed in the blast.
  • Yet as far back as 1998, government and the industry knew the technology existed to permit constant contact with miners underground. On November 25, 1998, a fire occurred at the Cyprus Plateau Mining Corporation's Willow Creek Mine, near Price, Utah. Here is how the Labor's Department MSHA website described what happened there: "The shift foreman ordered an evacuation using a unique system which operates like a pager that was worn by some miners. This 'PED' system (Personal Emergency Device), allowed for constant contact with the miners, even those working in remote areas. After the accident, a text message was sent to the miners--'mine fire-evacuate'. The 45 miners were safely evacuated in about 45 minutes."

    Similar communications systems have been more widely used in mines in Australia and elsewhere. By one estimate, the total cost of providing PEDs for workers in a mine the size of Sago would have been about $100,000.

    At Thursday's hearing, Brooklyn Democrat Major Owens sarcastically asked an MSHA official, "Is there anyone in your department assigned to keep up with the world?"

    Representatives with MSHA and the National Mining Association said they were still looking for a reliable system. After the 1988 Cyprus Plateau rescue, the government came to the conclusion that the PED technology was flawed, and did not mandate its adoption.

    "I started working in mines in the 1970s and was doing that for 20 years of my life," Dennis O’Dell, head of Occupational Health and Safety for the United Mine workers, said in an interview Thursday. "The telephone system they had then is the same exact system they use at most of the sites today."

  • Why didn't the rescuers move faster? Had they concluded everyone was dead without actually knowing so? That would account for the seeming lack of urgency in their operations. Sago miners with firsthand knowledge of the workings of the mine, have told investigators they went to the company command site to ask permission to enter the mine and find the lost men. Permission was denied.
  • Was the safety of the mine compromised by the pipeline running over the top? That pipeline carried highly volatile natural gas across the top of a mine that used large amounts of electricity for cutting coal. Its proximity raises the possibility, however slight, that it could have contributed to the disaster. And as the Charleston Gazette has reported, the mine is close to several bore holes of abandoned gas wells. Sometimes such bore holes contain substantial  amounts of methane, which can cause an explosion if struck by mining machinery. Many of these wells are mapped, but some are not, and the maps aren't always accurate.
  • Why had that part of the mine been sealed in an unusual way? Traditionally, miners use concrete blocks to seal off sections, but the accident occurred in an area where weaker blocks of fly ash had been used instead. These blocks, approved by the state inspector last December, were blown out in the explosion. Why were they approved and did they contribute to the miners' deaths?

  • Additional reporting: Michael Roston

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