Few Answers as Sago Mine Reopens


WASHINGTON, D.C.—It’s business as usual over in West Virginia, where the Sago mine reopened Wednesday.

The coal is pouring out in a steady stream. The TV networks are long gone. The signs urging prayers for the Sago miners have been taken down. Neighbors are still telling the few journalists who stop by stories about the 12 dead men who became the center of national attention when the mine explosion happened on January 2, trapping them inside, eventually killing all but one. The one man to live—Randal McCloy—is lying in a rehabilitation center with brain damage.

At a briefing earlier this week company officials continued to say the cause of the explosion was a lightning strike.

Executives of the International Coal Group, which owns the mine, say they just don’t know why they think the way they do. But on Tuesday the company handed out a P.R. release that said, “The explosion was ignited by lightning and fueled by methane that naturally accumulated in an abandoned area of the mine that had been recently sealed.” The company points to strange streaks across the mine roof, which might suggest passage of electricity across the ceiling. But the company adds, “The testing of these unusual features has not been completed to determine if it was created by the passage of electrical energy from lightning.” Through its P.R. firm, the company said it would not talk about the news release or the investigation.

There is one good explanation for not talking. If the ICG people can pin the blast on lightning, then the miners’ deaths may be seen as an act of God. In that case, the possibility of company liability in damage suits could be lessened.

The Sago mine is nonunion, and at rate the once powerful United Mine Workers is reduced to a shado of its former presence. Still, the UMW has been throwing in its two cents’ worth whenever it has a chance. On Wednesday, Cecil Roberts, the UMW president, attacked ICG in a press release: “ICG is essentially saying this was an act of God, and we all know you can’t sue God,” said Roberts. “One can make a case that this announcement is more about future litigation defense purposes than it is about actually shining a light of truth on what really happened.”

At the briefing, the company said lightning might have got into the mine through natural gas pipelines running on the surface above the mine. Or it might have traveled from a nearby power plant. “One of the mapped lightning strikes was 300 feet away from a power pole that supplied power to the mine, and it is possible that the electrical energy entered the mine through this mechanism, traveling perhaps along the conveyor belt structure,” the company said.

Investigators are dubious of this claim, since a lightning strike carried into the mine over an electric line would have knocked the line out.

So, not knowing what caused the explosion, or whether the mine remains vulnerable to that kind of accident, the mine owners started operations again as the federal and state safety officials stood by.