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MSHA goes to court for union

Federal mine safety officials on Wednesday sought a court order to force International Coal Group to allow union representatives onto company property to participate in the Sago Mine disaster investigation.

U.S. District Judge Robert E. Maxwell in Elkins heard arguments on the matter for about an hour, but did not make a decision.

Maxwell scheduled the hearing to continue this morning on the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s request for an injunction.

“MSHA is doing everything it legally can to enforce the rights of the miners’ representatives to participate in MSHA’s underground investigation into the Sago Mine accident,” said Ed Clair, a top MSHA lawyer.

“Together, the state and MSHA made a commitment to the families that we could conduct a fair, open investigation, and we decided we needed to take this extraordinary step to keep that commitment,” Clair said in a prepared statement.

Earlier in the day, ICG guards had refused to allow UMW representatives to accompany investigators from MSHA and the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training into the Sago Mine.

Sago is a nonunion operation. But several miners exercised their legal right to designate the UMW as their representative in the investigation.

ICG objected, and then said that it has received signed papers from other Sago workers who want several of their co-workers to be their representative in the probe.

MSHA investigation procedures consider such developments, and include provisions for separate representatives of different miners to take part.

The portion of federal mine safety law that allows miners to designate representatives specifically gives those representatives the right to enter mine property for accident investigations.

“This is absolutely ridiculous,” said Tim Baker, a UMW safety official taking part in the Sago probe.

“This company is spending more time and money and energy trying to keep us out than they have trying to figure out what happened,” Baker said. “We all have the same goal in mind, so let’s get on with it.”

On Wednesday, state and federal investigators looking into the Sago disaster were for the first time going to begin gathering evidence from underground.

Twelve miners died and another was critically injured after an explosion ripped through the Sago Mine south of Buckhannon on Jan. 2.

The only survivor emerged from his coma Wednesday. Doctors at West Virginia University’s Ruby Memorial Hospital said Randal McCloy Jr., 26, was able to chew and swallow soft foods, but still could not speak.

Calls for increased mine safety efforts have escalated, especially following the Jan. 19 deaths of two Massey Energy workers in a conveyor belt fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Melville, Logan County.

Ellery Hatfield, 47, and Don I. Bragg, 33, died of smoke inhalation, state Department of Health and Human Resources spokesman John Law told The Associated Press. Hatfield’s funeral is scheduled for Friday, and Bragg’s on Sunday, the AP said.

Acting MSHA chief David G. Dye announced late Tuesday that he had appointed Kenny Murray, the agency’s district manager in Eastern Kentucky, to lead the Aracoma Mine investigation.

In Washington Wednesday, coal state representatives and other lawmakers continued their calls for improved mine safety — and singled out MSHA for harsh criticism.

“Where is MSHA?” Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., asked during a Senate floor speech. “What is that agency waiting for?”

Byrd complained that the Sago Mine had received 276 MSHA citations over the last two years, and still was allowed to operate.

“Could an automobile driver or a truck driver rack up 276 speeding tickets and still have a license? What if someone had 276 mistakes on a tax return?” Byrd asked. “But here was a coal company with 276 violations and still operating.”

Meanwhile, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., called on the Bush administration to dramatically increase fines against mining companies that repeatedly violate federal safety rules.

Miller, ranking Democrat on a committee that oversees MSHA, noted that the administration has sought legislation to increase the maximum allowable fines from $60,000 per citation to $200,000 per citation.

MSHA does not appear to take advantage of the current legal maximum fine often enough, Miller said in a letter to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.

At the Sago Mine, for example, MSHA fined ICG just $24,374 for the citations issued in 2005, or an average of just $156 per violation, Miller wrote.

Miller noted that 89 of the citations issued to the Sago Mine were assessed at the minimum fine of $60 each. But, Miller said, many of these citations “were the result of repeated violations of the same rules and regulations, over and over.”

For example, Miller said, one citation in December 2005 for accumulation of combustible material received a $60 fine. It was the 21st citation that year for the same type of violation, Miller said.

“At the same time, the mine received over a dozen repeat citations for failing to adequately insulate and fully protect power wires and cables, all of which were considered serious and substantial, and not one of which garnered more than a $247 fine as of the day of the tragedy,” Miller said in his letter.

Miller reminded Chao that federal law allows MSHA to waive its regular penalty formula and issue “special assessment” fines when a company shows an “unwarrantable failure to comply” with safety rules.

“In such a profitable industry, there is no reason to tolerate repeat violations by mine operators,” Miller said wrote to Chao. “Tougher law enforcement requires that you exercise your authority — authority you have had all along — to impose larger fines than MSHA has been imposing.”

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


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