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Disaster avoidable, Sago investigators find

BUCKHANNON — Stronger seals, proper methane monitoring and the removal of a pump cable from a sealed area underground could have prevented the Sago Mine disaster, according to a long-awaited report issued Wednesday by federal investigators.

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators identified these as “root causes” that, if eliminated “could have mitigated the severity of the accident or prevented the loss of life,” according to 190-page report.

MSHA officials did not cite mine owner International Coal Group for these problems — or any of the 149 violations they found in their Sago investigation — as violations that contributed to the Jan. 2, 2006, disaster.

MSHA pointed to a lightning strike as the “most likely” ignition source for the explosion that ripped through a sealed area of the Sago Mine, killing 12 workers and seriously injuring another in West Virginia’s worst coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.

Federal officials offered a slightly more detailed explanation for the lightning theory than had been contained in previous reports by ICG, the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training and Manchin administration special investigator Davitt McAteer.

That did not help MSHA escape harsh criticism from Sago victims’ families, who said the lack of any contributing citations shows the federal agency is too cozy with the mining industry.

“I can’t tell where the coal company ends and MSHA begins,” Deborah Hamner, who lost her husband, George Junior Hamner, at Sago, said after emerging from a five-hour private meeting where MSHA explained its findings to the families.

Pam Campbell, the sister-in-law of Sago miner Marty Bennett, said MSHA and the news media remain too focused on whether lightning was or wasn’t the ignition source for the methane gas explosion.

“They are so focused on the lightning issue that they have just pushed everything else aside,” Campbell said during a break in the meeting, held on the campus of West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, north of the mine site.

When the explosion occurred, one team of miners escaped but another crew of 13 became trapped deep underground. Original reports said that one of them, fireboss Terry Helms, was killed by the blast itself. MSHA said in its report that Helms actually died shortly after the explosion of carbon monoxide poisoning.

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

As the nation watched on television, a false report led families gathered in a nearby church to believe that all 12 had survived. They learned of the tragic miscommunication three hours later, fueling even more anger at ICG.

The Sago disaster marked the end of the coal industry’s safest year in history, and the beginning of what would be mining’s worst year since 1995, with 47 deaths in the coalfields.

At Wednesday’s MSHA report release, families sat through several hours of an MSHA slide show that detailed the agency’s findings, and peppered investigators with questions. Outside, trucks, SUVs and cars with Sago window stickers lined a quiet street that marked the edge of the Wesleyan campus.

Copies of the report began to leak out shortly after the meeting began, and family members had to walk through a parade of news cameras and reporters when they wanted to leave or take a break.

In its report, MSHA investigators said they believe one of two types of lightning strikes led to the explosion: Either a horizontal bolt that split off a strike recorded at about the 6:30 a.m. time of the blast, or another strike that went unrecorded by various lightning detection systems.

Based on a report by the Sandia National Laboratory, MSHA investigators then concluded the lightning created an electromagnetic field, similar to the field created by the north and south poles of a magnet.

This phenomenon, a Sandia report to MSHA said, could create enough energy to induce a voltage onto a pump cable that ICG had left in the sealed area of the mine. In turn, this voltage, the theory goes, would cause an arc or spark that ignited methane built up inside the sealed area.

“We think the evidence is fairly clear that lightning caused this,” said Marvin Morris, a Sandia official who joined MSHA investigators for a news conference following the family meeting.

MSHA found the resulting explosion produced forces in excess of 93 pounds per square inch, nearly five times the strength test that mine seals are required to meet under a 1992 MSHA regulation.

Also, MSHA said “bottom mining” of the sealed area’s floor created a funnel that prompted “drastic increases” in the explosive forces as they reached — and eventually pulverized — the lightweight, foam-block seals ICG had installed.

In a news release, ICG noted, “various regulatory violations cited over the course of the investigation had no connection with the accident and were not contributory in any fashion.”

But throughout its report, MSHA outlined a wide variety of serious safety problems ranging from poor training and non-existent safety examinations to the failure to perform required tests of emergency breathing devices — including tests for the devices worn by six of the 12 miners who became trapped by the explosion.

Richard Stickler, assistant secretary of labor for MSHA, rattled off a list of the mine’s violation history and commented that its accident rate far exceeded the national average.

“I would conclude that safety was not a top priority at this operation,” Stickler told reporters.

In its report, MSHA listed four violations its investigators said were among the more serious they found in the wake of the disaster:

s The seals were not built according to the mine’s approved plan or MSHA guidelines. Among other things, they were built in an opening that was too large for their design and did not contain the proper mortar at the bottom or in the joints.

s Several miners did not don their self-contained self-rescuers immediately after the explosion.

s MSHA and mine rescue teams were not immediately notified of the accident.

s Five electrical circuits entering or exiting the mine did not have required lightning protections.

“Even though these violations did not directly lead to the cause and effect or the severity of the accident, they are important matters that miners and the mining industry should be aware of and attentive to in order to prevent and minimize coal mine accidents,” the MSHA report said.

Pressed to explain the lack of any contributing violations, Stickler said some of the problems found, even if corrected, would not have made a difference.

For example, he said properly built seals still would not have withstood a 93-psi explosion.

Also, Stickler said MSHA can only cite companies for violating laws or regulations that are already on the books. Existing law does not require coal operators to test for methane inside sealed areas or to pull equipment such as the pump cable out of those areas. MSHA plans to change those things with upcoming rules, Stickler said.

The MSHA report is available online at www.msha.gov.

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


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