Numerous faulty safety checks found
Managers of the Sago Mine repeatedly ignored or simply missed hazardous roof conditions and dangerous buildups of combustible materials during required safety checks, according to federal records released Tuesday.
Federal inspectors cited Sago over and over for serious violations of roof control rules, explosion prevention measures and other safety lapses.
But more importantly, safety experts say, the Sago Mine management was found by government inspectors to be unwilling or incapable of properly checking the mine’s conditions before workers went underground.
In one case, a federal inspector alleged that one Sago foreman had “engaged in aggravated conduct” by ignoring numerous problems with a battery charging station.
Until various investigations are completed, it will not be clear if the kinds of violations cited by MSHA played any role in the disaster.
But, one safety expert said the string of faulty mine examinations was so severe it should have been considered for federal criminal prosecution.
“I would say that these are indicative of an operator who wasn’t going to let safety get in the way of production,” said Tony Oppegard, a longtime mine safety expert who has worked for federal and state regulatory agencies.
In the wake of the deaths of 12 workers at the Sago Mine last week — the worst mining disaster in West Virginia in nearly 40 years — safety experts are scouring the mine’s inspection record for clues to the cause of the Jan. 2 explosion.
On Tuesday morning, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration took the unusual step of posting some of the Sago Mine’s most serious citations on its Web site, www.msha.gov.
Generally, the MSHA online system provides only vague information about which sections of federal mining rules are violated.
Actual copies of inspection reports are needed to develop a clearer picture of the nature and seriousness of violations. Over the last few years, MSHA has made a habit of withholding those inspection reports for months after major accidents.
The documents released Tuesday by MSHA provide the most complete picture to date — and it is really just an early snapshot — of the conditions Sago miners had to work in every day.
For example, just 2 1/2 weeks before the explosion, an MSHA inspector found large accumulations of combustible coal left in the mine by a previous shift.
In a Dec. 14 inspection, MSHA found coal six to eight inches deep in piles along mine walls and roadways. The inspector also saw highly explosive coal dust building up on the mine roof and walls. Also, he found that the company had done a poor job of spreading limestone material meant to keep that coal dust from igniting.
“The operator has shown a high degree of negligence for the health and safety of the miners that work at this coal mine by allowing the conditions to exist,” the MSHA inspector wrote.
On at least two occasions since August, MSHA cited the Sago management for not properly maintaining escapeways for miners, according to the agency records.
One of those citations was issued following a Nov. 8 inspection, during which MSHA also noted a buildup of coal dust and faulty roof bolting.
The MSHA inspector also reported that a Sago Mine foreman had failed to notice — or at least failed to report — those problems.
Under federal law, a specially trained foreman, sometimes called a fire boss, must perform a series of safety checks within three hours before every shift.
The law requires this foreman to check air quality, roof control, mine seals and roadways, and a long list of other potential hazards.
Problems that are found are required to be listed in a special notebook. The fire boss is supposed to post a sign that says “danger,” at trouble spots, and no one is to enter those areas until violations are fixed.
“If you have a foreman who is not doing pre-shift examinations properly, you should discharge that person, because every miner working there is relying on that person,” Oppegard said.
Officials from International Coal Group have challenged some, but not all, of the citations issued by MSHA.
And, the day after last week’s explosion, company officials said that a pre-shift examination was properly performed just before the blast and showed no problems.
“That just adds to the mystery of how this happened,” said ICG vice president Gene Kitts. “It was inspected as required by the regulations, and it was clean, and an hour later, there was this explosion.”
But the pre-shift examinations at Sago were not always done properly, according to MSHA records.
On June 2, for example, one mine foreman missed the improper placement of a battery charging station in a location that could have sparked a fire or explosion.
In that case, the MSHA inspector took the unusual step of singling out that foreman, John Travise, in his formal report, saying that Travise “has engaged in aggravated conduct by his failure to record and take action on a known hazard.” Travise could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Oppegard, the mine safety expert, noted that Congress singled out the falsification of reports such as pre-shift logs as the only violation that can be prosecuted as a felony crime.
“I can’t over-emphasize how important pre-shift examinations are,” Oppegard said. “It is a key provision put in the act to protect miners’ safety.”
Short of criminal prosecution, MSHA could have sought to shut down the Sago Mine for having a pattern of pre-shift examination violations.
During a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon, acting deputy MSHA chief Bob Friend said that a pattern of violations “takes much longer than just a few weeks or a few months to establish.”
The records released by MSHA included only the 17 orders that agency inspectors issued for “unwarrantable failure” by Sago to comply with mine regulations. Issuing such an order is among the most serious steps the agency can take.
Those 17 orders include three faulty pre-shift examinations and two faulty weekly exams between May and December 2005.
More complete MSHA records show that the Sago Mine was cited at least nine other times for faulty mine examinations between July 2004 and September 2005.
“From the time that the company got its first unwarrantable failure, that put them on alert that those examinations weren’t being conducted properly,” Oppegard said. “Such unwarrantable failure is just intolerable, and that should be referred to the U.S. attorney for possible criminal prosecution.”
Friend, the MSHA official, said that he would have to look into whether his agency ever took that step.
Fawn Thomas, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Tom Johnston, declined to comment late Tuesday.
“We cannot confirm or deny the existence of any investigation,” Thomas said.
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.