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Sago probe starts; UMW takes part

Federal and state investigators finally began their on-site examination of the Sago Mine Thursday, after a judge ordered International Coal Group to allow miners’ representatives underground to take part in the probe.

United Mine Workers officials went onto the mine site with government investigators at about 3 p.m. Thursday, said union spokesman Phil Smith.

Earlier in the day, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Maxwell ordered ICG to stop blocking UMW officials from entering the mine.

Lawyers for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration sought the order Wednesday, after ICG refused to allow UMW safety experts into the Sago Mine.

“MSHA will take every step to protect the miners’ interest in a fair and open investigation into this tragic accident — including ensuring that the UMWA can participate fully as the miners’ representative,” said Ed Clair, MSHA’s top lawyer. “We are elated that the court agreed that the rights of the miners’ representatives must be protected.”

Twelve miners died and another was critically injured in the Jan. 2 explosion at the Sago Mine, a small underground operation just south of Buckhannon.

Nonunion miners asked

for UMW representatives

The Sago Mine, formerly operated by Anker Energy, is a nonunion operation.

Several Sago workers exercised their right to representation during the disaster probe, and appointed the UMW as their representative. Two families of Sago victims also asked the UMW to represent them during the investigation.

In court papers, ICG lawyer Albert F. Sebok alleged that MSHA was “allowing the UMWA to infiltrate the Sago Mine” and that the union was trying “to revive organizing efforts that have been stalled for many years.”

Sebok also noted that the national AFL-CIO had filed a complaint against ICG with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Sebok said it is “clear that the union is launching a broad-based campaign against ICG, a 100 percent union-free company.”

Sebok told the court that 90 Sago workers had designated fellow employees as their representatives for the probe. MSHA investigation guidelines anticipate situations where different miners may appoint separate representatives during accident investigations.

Coal company to appeal

ruling allowing UMW on site

In a news release, ICG said it plans to appeal Maxwell’s ruling. Maxwell declined to suspend his ruling pending that appeal, court records show.

Meanwhile, state officials said Sago investigation interviews were continuing Thursday behind closed doors in Clarksburg.

Gov. Joe Manchin has promised a public hearing later in the joint state-federal probe, but has allowed interviews of witnesses to continue in secret.

MSHA officials also refused requests that they invoke a section of federal mine safety law that allows the entire investigation to be conducted through public hearings.

During a Thursday briefing for legislative leaders, Manchin mine safety adviser Davitt McAteer cautioned that government officials and the public should not pre-judge the cause of the Sago disaster.

“You really must keep an open mind,” McAteer said. “You don’t want the facts to fit your theory, you want the facts to drive the investigation.”

Still, McAteer said that state officials have asked the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to conduct a special study of the materials used to seal off the area of the Sago Mine where the explosion may have occurred.

Records show that ICG sealed the area in December, after discovering that repeated roof falls made it unsafe to mine.

An inspector from the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training inspected the seals Dec. 12 and determined they were properly constructed.

The seals were made of Omega Block, a foam material that some mine safety experts say is weaker — and less able to contain an explosion — than concrete blocks.

“Are these blocks any better or any worse than cinder blocks?” McAteer said. “It’s a legitimate question.”

Terry Farley, an administrator with the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, told lawmakers the Sago Mine appears to have had proper permits for mine workings that were within 100 feet of three oil and gas wells.

State rules require notification of oil and gas companies for mining within 500 feet of wells, and special permits for mining within 200 feet of wells, Farley said.

McAteer said mining close to oil and gas wells is dangerous, and something that the industry should strive to avoid.

“We don’t like mining through this,” McAteer said. “You would prefer to leave it alone.”

Farley said the wells were all tied together by piping near the surface. The potential for such pipes to transmit a spark if they were hit by lightning “will have to be looked at carefully,” Farley said.

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


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