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Mine disaster causes often remain a mystery

On March 9, 1976, an explosion ripped through the Scotia Mine in Letcher County, Ky. All 15 miners who were underground at the time were killed.

Two days later, a second explosion roared through the Scotia Mine. Eleven more men, including three federal inspectors, died.

Federal investigators blamed the first explosion on a spark from a battery-powered underground locomotive. But they never figured out what ignited the second blast.

It could have been a spark from the mine’s automatic sprinkler system or from one of three mine phones. It could have been mine scoop batteries or fires that smoldered after the first explosion.

In its official report, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said it believed the spark from a roof fall hitting a roof-bolting machine “most likely” ignited the second explosion.

But, MSHA said, the exact cause “cannot be definitely determined.”

In West Virginia, the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training believes that lightning ignited the Jan. 2 explosion that killed 12 workers at the Sago Mine in Upshur County.

But in a report released last week, state investigators said that they cannot explain how the lightning got into the mine and ignited methane deep inside a sealed portion of the workings.

“Answers to all questions associated with this tragedy may never be answered,” Ron Wooten, director of the state agency, said in a cover letter attached to his agency’s report.

If Wooten turns out to be right, it wouldn’t be the first time government investigators could not pinpoint the cause of a coal-mine disaster.

“There are a substantial number of mine disasters over the last 100 years where the actual, proximate cause is unknown,” said Davitt McAteer, a longtime mine-safety advocate who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration. “You can boil it down to a number of possible causes, but you can’t pinpoint it.”

In addition to Scotia, investigators were unable to determine the exact cause of at least two other mine disasters over the last 30 years, according to a review of dozens of MSHA reports.

On June 21, 1983, seven miners died in a methane explosion at the McClure No. 1 Mine, operated by Clinchfield Coal Co. in Dickenson County, Va.

MSHA investigators said the blast was caused by one of six possible sources, including problems with a conveyor belt cable and a dinner hole light circuit and the use of a nonpermissible underground personnel carrier. Agency investigators could not figure out which was the real culprit.

On Sept. 13, 1989, 10 miners were killed in a methane explosion at the Pyro No. 9 Slope, William Station Mine, operated by Pyro Mining Co. in Union County, Ky.

MSHA investigators narrowed their list of possible ignition sources to five, including a cutting torch, a roof fall and a blasting cap. But, the agency concluded, “The actual ignition source could not be definitely identified.”

At Scotia, McClure and Pyro, the inability to pinpoint the ignition source did not stop mine safety officials from outlining poor safety practices that they said played a role, or from learning from the disasters to improve safety in the future.

After the McClure disaster, for example, MSHA investigators said that the company had failed to install adequate ventilation controls to keep methane from building up to explosive levels. Investigators also blamed the company for not conducting proper pre-shift safety checks, and ignoring its MSHA-approved mine ventilation plan.

At Pyro, MSHA investigators found that the company had removed a ventilation wall, allowing methane to flow toward and into a mined-out area, where it built up to explosive levels. Later, Pyro Mining Co. and 15 of its mine managers pleaded “no contest” to criminal mine safety violations.

Following the Scotia disaster, poor federal enforcement at the mine was cited when Congress rewrote national safety laws in 1977.

Congressional investigators concluded that the mine “as well as other mines, had an inspection history of recurrent violations, some of which were tragically related to the disasters, which the existing enforcement scheme was unable to address.”

Problems at Scotia led lawmakers to give MSHA the authority to take escalating action — up to shutting down portions of a mine — for a pattern of violations by the operator. MSHA has never used that authority, although new agency chief Richard Stickler says it plans to do so.

Although the Scotia explosions occurred in March 1976, MSHA did not formally issue its report until Aug. 11, 1993.

Federal officials were prepared to release the report in September 1977. But Scotia Coal and its parent company, Blue Diamond Coal Co., persuaded a federal judge to block its publication until civil litigation filed by the miners’ families was finished.

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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