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Sago 2 years later: Safety efforts lag

Two years ago this morning, a huge explosion ripped through a small, little-noticed coal mine in Upshur County. Within hours, the national media had focused on 13 miners missing deep inside International Coal Group’s Sago Mine.

Twelve of those miners died before rescuers could reach them 40 hours later. Only Randal McCloy Jr. survived.

After the disaster — West Virginia’s worst mining accident in nearly 40 years — lawmakers, mine safety advocates and regulators scrambled to offer answers and institute reforms.

Since then, there’s been a flurry of new laws, tougher regulations and demands for increased inspections and enforcement. Much progress has been made.

But since Sago, at least 67 more coal miners have died on the job across the country.

Last year saw its share of progress. Federal fines for safety violations were greatly increased. State requirements for new emergency breathing devices and communications gear began to kick in.

At the same time, 2007 saw more than its share of setbacks for coal-mine safety.

In August, six miners and three rescuers died in a huge mine collapse at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah. About a month later, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration was forced to acknowledge that it had missed dozens of required inspections at underground mines across Southern West Virginia and elsewhere.

Peggy Cohen, who lost her father, Fred Ware, in the Sago disaster, said recently she hopes West Virginians haven’t forgotten the Sago miners and efforts to stop mining injuries and deaths.

“I think we are making progress with mine safety,” Cohen said. “Are we completely done with all the laws and regulations? No, not by any means.

“I think these coal companies need to remember these miners deserve to go home to their families every day at the end of their shift,” Cohen said. “If that means they have to spend millions to keep them safe and make sure they get home at the end of their shift, then by all means this needs to be done.”

At the National Mining Association, officials say the nation’s coal operators have done just that.

Since Sago, association member companies alone have invested about $250 million to comply with the 2006 MINER Act and otherwise improve mine safety, the group says.

And a few in the coal industry have begun to call for a rethinking of safety goals.

“We need to change the paradigm and we need to change it now,” CONSOL Energy President J. Brett Harvey said in an August speech. “What industry must change is our incremental approach to safety improvement because it creates an unintended tolerance to accidents. We need to get to zero.”

Less than two weeks after that speech, 35-year-old miner Brent Reynolds of Virgie, Ky., was killed in a Sept. 3 roof fall at CONSOL’s Bronzite mine in Mingo County. State investigators recommended CONSOL add more roof supports and drill more roof-test holes to prevent a recurrence.

The Bronzite Mine, meanwhile, was one of dozens of underground coal operations where MSHA inspectors were far behind in conducting required quarterly inspections.

A Labor Department inspector general’s report blamed the problem on Bush administration budget cuts that slashed MSHA’s budget at a time when mining was increasing.

Richard Stickler, assistant labor secretary for MSHA, has struggled to catch up. New inspectors are being hired, but they take a long time to train. Existing staffers are being temporarily transferred to help, but that requires overtime pay at a time when money remains tight for the agency.

“We’re working very hard,” Stickler said. “We’re putting a lot of pressure on our people out in the field.”

In West Virginia, MSHA’s hiring blitz has taken some staff away from the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, which was itself already scrambling to deal with the fallout from Sago and from the deaths of two miners in the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine fire.

Ron Wooten, director of the state agency, said his staff has made tremendous progress implementing two new state laws pushed through by Gov. Joe Manchin in 2006 and 2007.

“I think it’s been pretty remarkable,” Wooten said. “I don’t know how else to describe it.”

Since Sago, West Virginia coal operators have added more than 40,000 new self-contained self-rescuers to their mines to meet one of Manchin’s mandate. Wooten thinks operators are well on their way to meeting deadlines to add new communications equipment and underground rescue shelters.

But in late December, the state hit yet another hurdle when federal tests found a variety of problems with three of the four shelter models chosen by the state’s mining industry. Some models don’t provide enough oxygen. Others fail to scrub out deadly gases. Two of the four models failed temperature tests.

And on the federal level, a congressionally mandated change in underground mine seal construction standards is also facing problems. A previously secret study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers indicates the proposed MSHA rule change does not go nearly far enough.

“Presumably, many seals are now stronger than they were before Sago, and new ones are being constructed to a higher standard than before Sago,” said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers union. “However, we remain skeptical about whether the criteria now being applied is protective enough.”

Smith said the MSHA seal rule is just one area where more work is needed to protect the nation’s miners.

“There are still a great many problems that remain to be addressed when it comes to mine safety,” he said. “Some changes to the good have been made, but most are only half-measures, and many remain changes only on paper, not in fact.”

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


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