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Sago mine has history of roof falls

An Upshur County coal mine where 13 workers were trapped Monday has a recent history of roof falls and serious safety violations, according to a review of government records.

In 2004, the Sago Mine reported an injury rate that was three times that of similar-size underground mines across the country.

And last year, the Anker West Virginia Mining Co. operation was fined more than $24,000 for about 200 alleged violations, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data.

During the last six months of 2005, the Sago Mine reported a dozen accidental roof falls, according to MSHA records.

Only one of those roof falls caused an injury, the MSHA records show.

Three of the roof falls occurred after International Coal Group finalized its purchase of the Anker operation in mid-November.

During their last three complete examinations of the Sago Mine, MSHA inspectors cited the company for more than 180 violations.

After the most recent such inspection — from early October to late December — MSHA issued 46 citations and three orders for a variety of safety violations. Inspectors listed 18 of those as “serious and substantial.” These “S&S” violations are those that MSHA believes are likely to cause an accident that would seriously injure a miner.

“The numbers don’t sound good,” said Davitt McAteer, a Marion County native who was MSHA chief during the Clinton administration.

In that October to December inspection, MSHA cited the Sago Mine for violating its approved roof control and mine ventilation plans. The company was also cited for violations concerning emergency escapeways and required pre-shift safety examinations.

During an inspection from early July to late September, MSHA found 70 violations. Agency inspectors listed 42 of those as “S&S.”

MSHA found 52 violations during an inspection from April to June. Inspectors classified 31 of those as “S&S.”

“The number of violations is sufficiently high that it should tip off management that there is something amiss here,” McAteer said. “For a small operation, that is a significant number of violations.”

Also, McAteer said the roof fall frequency “suggests that the roof is bad and that the support system is not meeting the needs of the roof.”

ICG purchased the former Anker operation, south of Buckhannon, in March. The deal was finalized on Nov. 18.

In 2003 and 2004, the Sago Mine reported no coal production, according to MSHA records.

The mine ramped back up in 2004 but was still considered relatively small, producing nearly 400,000 tons of coal with 65 employees.

Through the first three quarters of last year, the mine produced 366,000 tons of coal with 145 workers, according to MSHA records.

In 2004, the mine reported eight injuries that kept workers off the job for at least a day. That year, the company paid all of the $9,515 in fines that MSHA assessed.

Through the first three quarters of 2005, the mine reported 14 such injuries.

So far, the company has paid nearly $14,500 of the $24,155 in fines that MSHA has assessed for 2005. Fines for 18 of the 180 citations issued in 2005 have not yet been assessed, MSHA records show.

Terry Farley, an administrator with the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, said he has not yet pulled records to review the Sago Mine’s violation history with state regulators.

In a news conference at Monday evening, a company official said conditions have improved since November, when International Coal Group bought the mine.

MSHA’s concerns have been addressed, said Gene Kitts, ICG vice president of mining services. Safety has improved 80 percent between the second and fourth quarters of 2005, he said.

“We can talk about the violations, we can talk about the 80 percent improvement since earlier this year. But right now we’re focused on recovering the miners. We think we’re operating a safe mine.”

During a live interview on CNN Monday, Gov. Joe Manchin promised a complete investigation of the cause of the explosion.

Manchin said he was not yet aware of anything that would have warned of problems at the Sago Mine.

“I have not heard any of that,” Manchin said. “No one has said we knew we had a problem there.”

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


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