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Three lightning strikes hit near mine

Three lightning strikes hit within five miles of the Sago Mine within a half-hour of Monday morning’s deadly explosion, according to a federal government contractor that monitors thunderstorms.

Two of the strikes, including one that was four to 10 times stronger than average, hit within 1 1/2 miles of the center of the Upshur County mine, according to the contractor.

At the same time, company officials and accident investigators confirmed that they believe the explosion occurred in a sealed area of the operation.

Ben Hatfield, president of International Coal Group, the company that owns the mine, said rescue crews found that concrete seals on the abandoned mine area had been blown apart by the blast.

Hatfield said that a “very substantial explosive force” blew the seals in toward the working area of the mine.

Revelations about the blast location and the lightning strikes revived early reports that lightning could have triggered the worst West Virginia mining disaster in nearly 40 years.

Terry Farley, administrator for the state Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training, said that previous underground explosions tied to lightning have occurred in areas that were mined out and sealed.

“The lightning strike seemed pretty far-fetched at first, but it seems more plausible now,” Farley said Wednesday morning.

On Wednesday, officials from Vaisala Inc., which monitors thunderstorms for the National Weather Service, confirmed the lightning strikes in the vicinity of the Sago Mine.

Nick Demetriades, a meteorologist with Vaisala, said that two of the strikes “could definitely be candidates for causing this type of incident.”

Both of those strikes hit at 6:26 a.m. and were within 1 1/2 miles of the mine site, according to a data analysis Vaisala performed for The Charleston Gazette. One of those two strikes — the closest to the mine site — measured between four and 10 times more powerful than an average lightning strike, according to the analysis.

On Wednesday afternoon, state regulators were to join company officials and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration for the first meeting in what promises to be a long and complicated investigation of the disaster.

Top MSHA officials have not held any media briefings, returned few phone calls and declined to answer even basic questions from reporters since the first reports of the explosion early Monday.

MSHA has not announced the members of its investigation team, or said whether it would hold public or closed-door hearings as part of the probe.

On its Web site, MSHA released a very brief statement from acting agency chief David Dye.

“Now that the rescue and recovery phases of this operation are nearing completion, the Mine Safety and Health Administration will begin an in-depth investigation of the accident,” the statement said.

“This starts with the appointment of a separate MSHA investigation team that will evaluate all aspects of the accident and response, including compliance with all federal health and safety standards, and how emergency information was relayed about the trapped miners’ conditions,” Dye said.

In Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, the ranking Democrat on the House committee that oversees MSHA called for Congressional hearings on the accident and recent complaints about lax federal mine safety enforcement.

“Congress must examine the events that led up to this terrible tragedy at the Sago Mine,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.

“If this tragedy could have been prevented, then we need to find out why it wasn’t, for two reasons: First, because the loved ones of the miners deserve answers; and second, because we must do everything possible to prevent future tragedies like this one.”

Reps. Nick Rahall and Alan Mollohan, both D-W.Va., joined Miller in calling for congressional hearings.

In Charleston, three state lawmakers called for appointment of a special legislative committee to investigate the disaster.

“While this tragic event accompanied by horrible mistakes has devastated the families and communities of this coal mining region, the Legislature must fulfill its responsibilities and look forward to shaping policy which will reduce or eliminate the likelihood of a repeat tragedy,” wrote Sens. Randy White, D-Webster, and Jon Hunter, D-Monongalia, and Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, in a letter to Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, and House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh.

Gov. Joe Manchin has promised a complete state investigation and expressed new interest in beefing up state mine safety efforts.

“We will find out the exact cause,” Manchin said early Wednesday. “We will leave no stone unturned, and our goal is to have not one fatality in the state of West Virginia.”

In his first public statements about the explosion Monday, Manchin had suggested that a lightning strike could have ignited the blast.

In West Virginia, at least one fatal mining accident has been blamed on a lightning strike.

But that incident, killing two miners in 1986, occurred when a strike prematurely set off explosive blasts at a surface mine.

In May 2001, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health studied the issue of lightning strikes triggering mine explosions.

NIOSH experts examined the matter following a series of seven explosions over a six-year period in the 1990s.

All of those explosions occurred within worked-out, sealed areas — called gobs — of underground mines, according to the NIOSH report.

Three of them occurred in one mine in Alabama over a three-year period, according to the report.

In its own report on the third of those Alabama blasts, in July 1997, MSHA said that the exact “path [of the lightning charge] into the sealed area is undefined.”

MSHA recommended “pressure-balancing” the sealed area by removing a water pressure differential to make the air in the sealed area inert. “An inter atmosphere will be unaffected by lightning,” said the MSHA report on the explosion at U.S. Steel Mining’s Oak Grove Mine in Jefferson County, Ala. No one was injured in the Alabama blast.

In its report, NIOSH said if lightning is the ignition source, the only way to prevent such an explosion is to eliminate flammable concentrations of methane or other fuels or reduce the volume of the flammable mixture present in the sealed area.

Kenneth Cashdollar, one of the NIOSH authors, said mining companies should also be sure to remove any other potential ignition sources, such as old batteries, from sealed areas of mines.

Other potential ignition sources in sealed areas of mines include roof falls and spontaneous combustion, according to the NIOSH report.

“You can have leakage from those seals,” said Joe Sbaffoni, director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety. “And, you can have methane buildup behind those seals.

“It still comes down to what was the ignition source,” Sbaffoni said. “And I’m sure that the state and local officials will focus their investigation on determining what that was.”

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


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