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:
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.”
Additional reporting: Michael Roston