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Sago upgrades too slow, MSHA says

International Coal Group moved too slowly to improve safety after buying the Sago Mine last year, a top U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration official said Thursday.

“Evidently, their action plan hadn’t matured where they were ahead of that type of issue,” said Ray McKinney, a longtime MSHA official who is currently the agency’s administrator for coal mine safety and health.

McKinney discussed the Sago Mine disaster — West Virginia’s worst mine tragedy in nearly 40 years — during a brief interview on the statewide radio show “Talkline.”

In response to media reports about a long list of serious safety violations over the last two years, International Coal Group officials have said they took over the mine in mid-November and worked to improve the situation.

“We recognized that issues such as safety training and the relationship with the regulatory agencies needed to be worked on,” said Gene Kitts, a company vice president and mining engineer.

“We approached MSHA and the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training to work out plans to improve our training,” Kitts said. “We are in the process of improving the entire safety program.”

McKinney confirmed that MSHA had such discussions with ICG as early as May 2001 — two months after the company’s purchase was announced, but six months before it was finalized.

But, he added, those discussions did not end the safety violations or stop MSHA inspectors from citing the company.

“Simply sitting down and talking about what we need to do and developing an action plan from the company’s perspective on what they want to do would not stop us from doing our job, so we kept being aggressive with our enforcement,” McKinney said.

“Now, if they continued to work their plan with us and pay close attention to what we were doing, there probably was a time we should have seen the trend of the violations start to go down, and the gravity of the violations go down,” he said.

The radio appearance by McKinney was the first public comment of any substance by a top MSHA official since an explosion ripped through the mine south of Buckhannon early Monday morning.

So far, company officials and investigators have said the explosion appears to have occurred in a mined-out, sealed area adjacent to the active Sago Mine workings.

Three lightning strikes occurred near the mine site around the time of the explosion and could have ignited methane built up behind the mine seals. Other ignition sources, such as a roof fall, are also possible.

In a news release Thursday, MSHA announced its plans for an agency investigation of the disaster.

Acting MSHA chief David Dye said the probe would be led by Richard A. Green, an MSHA district manager in Birmingham, Ala.

Other team members include John Urosek and Richard Stoltz, ventilation experts from Pittsburgh; Dennis Swentosky, a ventilation supervisor in Hunker, Pa.; Robert Bates, an electrical supervisor in Pikeville, Ky.; Joseph O’Donnell, a field office supervisor in Bessemer, Ala.; Clete Stephan, an engineer in Pittsburgh, Pa.; and Gary Harris, a special investigator in Barbourville, Ky. James Crawford, Tim Williams and Bob Wilson, lawyers with the Department of Labor’s Solicitor’s Office in Arlington, Va., will assist the team, MSHA said.

“The purpose of MSHA’s investigation is to determine what caused the explosion and whether any safety and health standards were violated,” Dye said in the news release. “Then, we can take effective action to prevent such tragedies in the future.”

In its release, MSHA said the agency’s probe would “evaluate all aspects of the accident and response, including potential causes, compliance with federal health and safety standards, and how emergency information was relayed about the trapped miners’ condition.”

Also on Thursday, the leaders of a U.S. House committee that oversees MSHA rejected a request by Democrats — including Reps. Nick J. Rahall and Alan Mollohan, both D-W.Va. — for congressional hearings into the Sago mine disaster.

Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said “hastily” called hearings would compromise the MSHA investigation.

Boehner and Workforce Protections Subcommittee Chairman Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., said they don’t want to slow down the investigation.

“We expect MSHA to produce a thorough account of these events that occurred before, during and after this tragedy, and the committee will closely monitor the investigation to ensure its timely completion,” Boehner and Norwood said in a joint news release. “Following a full accounting of the facts, the committee will determine what appropriate steps may be necessary to ensure a similar tragedy never happens again.”

On the state level, House Speaker Bob Kiss and Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin were meeting Thursday to decide what role the Legislature should play in investigating the mining tragedy. A select committee might be established.

Earlier this week, three delegates and two state senators requested a legislative investigation and an examination of mine safety laws.

“Speaker Kiss is talking to the senate president and the governor, but we just haven’t got final word on what’s going to happen,” said House spokeswoman Stacy Ruckle. “The delegates will have a response within the next few days.”

Legislators will be in Charleston Sunday for interim meetings. The Legislature’s regular session starts next week.

“I don’t think anybody suspects there was any wrongdoing or covering up,” said Delegate Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, who knew several of the miners who died in the Sago mine. “But we just need a full accounting of what happened, not only for the grieving families, but for future miners. Let’s look at everything.”

Meanwhile, Gov. Joe Manchin said he plans to appoint a special investigator outside of the state mine safety office to lead a probe.

The state will also conduct a separate investigation into the miscommunication that led families to believe that 12 of the miners were found alive, Manchin said after speaking at a swearing-in ceremony of the 56th West Virginia State Police Class in Institute.

Manchin said his goal is to have no mining deaths in West Virginia. To do that, he said, the industry must “make workplace safety first and foremost.” Mine operators must err on the side of safety to protect their workers, the governor said.

Staff writers Eric Eyre and Dave Gustafson contributed to this report. To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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