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Sago fines cut again

Read the decision here

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration has agreed to cut in half the fines that International Coal Group must pay in the second of two legal cases over violations cited during the investigation of the Sago Mine Disaster, records show.

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials agreed to settle an appeal of more than a dozen violations by slashing the fines from $134,000 to $72,000, a reduction of 46 percent.

Information about the MSHA deal is included in a recent administrative law judge's ruling that also reduced the fines for two other enforcement orders that ICG subsidiary Wolf Run had appealed concerning the January 2006 disaster.

Judge Jerold Feldman of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission ruled that the two violations -- concerning the company's failure to immediately report the incident to regulators and mine safety teams -- were not as serious as MSHA inspectors had alleged.

The Sept. 13 decision is the second time a ruling by Feldman and a settlement by MSHA officials has reduced fines related to the Sago disaster.

Last year, Feldman threw out two of five MSHA violations that alleged a lack of proper lightning protection at the Upshur County mine. Feldman reduced fines for the other violations from $4,000 to about $1,000, and approved a deal in which MSHA dropped fines for 31 other violations from $28,000 to $25,000.

A third case involving ICG's appeal of a ventilation violation related to seal construction is pending.

When the explosion occurred on the morning of Jan. 2, 2006, one team of Sago miners escaped, but another crew of 13 workers became trapped deep underground. One of them, fireboss Terry Helms, died shortly after the explosion from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Twelve other miners waited for rescuers behind a makeshift barricade when several could not get their emergency breathing devices to work. Eleven of them died before rescuers could reach them more than 40 hours later. Only one, Randal McCloy Jr., survived.

MSHA investigators found a variety of serious safety problems at Sago, including ignored electrical problems, poor training practices and unsafe equipment. Federal officials also concluded that stronger seals, proper methane monitoring and the removal of a pump cable from a sealed-off area of the mine could have prevented the disaster.

However, MSHA did not classify any of the violations as having contributed to the deaths.

The recent ruling by Feldman focused on enforcement orders in which MSHA alleged serious negligence by ICG in delaying reporting the explosion to government officials and to specially trained mine rescue teams.

In one violation, MSHA alleged that the company did not try to report the 6:36 a.m. explosion to federal authorities until at least 7:50 a.m. In the other, MSHA alleged that ICG wrongly did not contact mine rescue teams until 8:04 a.m.

At the time of the Sago explosion, such incidents were to be reported to MSHA "immediately" and the Sago operation's emergency plan called for mine rescue teams to also be notified immediately of fires and explosions.

Rescue teams did not begin arriving at the Sago mine until between 10 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., and did not go into the mine until 5:30 p.m. because of dangerous concentrations of gases underground, Feldman said in his new decision.

ICG officials argued that they had trouble reaching MSHA officials because Jan. 2 was a government holiday. They also said mine managers were underground trying to rescue missing miners and were worried that a phone call to MSHA would prompt a government order to evacuate the mine until specially trained rescue teams arrived.

Feldman wrote that MSHA's position "is understandable from an enforcement perspective."

"The failure to timely notify MSHA and rescue teams immediately after an accident is a serious violation," the judge wrote.

"Rescue teams have the experience and equipment to safely attempt to recover victims of mine accidents," Feldman wrote. "The presence of rescue teams also minimizes the exposure of mine personnel who, as in this case, subordinate their personal safety in an effort to save friends, colleagues or family members."

Feldman also ruled, though, that MSHA had failed "to distinguish between imprudent or ill-advised conduct, and aggravated and unjustified conduct.

"Wolf Run's delay was not motivated by a desire to avoid notifying MSHA of the accident," the judge wrote. "Nor was it an attempt to alter an accident scene. Rather, Wolf Run's delay was caused by its preoccupation with determining the condition of its miners who were underground at the time of the explosion."

Feldman reduced the seriousness classification of both enforcement orders and cut the total fines for the two orders from $14,500 to $11,000.

Roger Nicholson, ICG's general counsel, said the company does not plan to appeal to the full mine safety commission.

"As the ALJ correctly pointed out, the company's managers were selflessly engaged in ongoing efforts to rescue the missing crew, and all of our managers acted in singular good faith with the safety of their co-workers in mind," Nicholson said.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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