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Sago lightning theory discounted

BUCKHANNON — Federal and state investigators joined Sago Mine families Wednesday in questioning mine owner International Coal Group’s depiction of the Jan. 2 explosion as an unpreventable disaster caused by a lightning strike.

Sara Bailey, the daughter of Sago miner Junior Hamner, criticized ICG’s release of its preliminary findings in mid-March as “an effort to influence public opinion” before government investigators complete their ongoing probe.

And after listening to a lengthy presentation by ICG’s paid consultants, officials from both federal and state mine safety agencies said they remained skeptical.

In interviews, government officials said that they are not ready to declare lightning the cause until someone figures out how an electrical charge made its way into the Sago workings deep underground.

“There is a lot of circumstantial things that point to lightning, but I am still not clear on the electrical connections,” said James Dean, director of the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training.

Bob Friend, the top U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration official attending the public hearings here, said that he and other MSHA officials also remain unconvinced.

“I’m not ready to say right now that it was lightning,” Friend said Wednesday evening.

“I’m going to wait until I have all of the information,” Friend said. “Everyone needs to wait until all of the facts are in.”

Dean went so far as to confirm that a geologist working for state investigators has discounted ICG’s initial theory that streaks found on the roof of the Sago Mine were marks left by the lightning strike.

“More than likely, it was a fossil,” Dean said.

Also, Dean and Friend confirmed that MSHA has not completed its testing of samples collected to determine if the sealed area was properly “rock dusted” with material meant to keep any buildup of coal dust from igniting.

In its March 14 press release, ICG had said that “every indication is that the area was more than sufficiently rock dusted.”

This morning, investigators from MSHA and the state are expected to release some details of what their probe has thus far uncovered. Officials cautioned that whatever information they release is only preliminary, and that their joint investigation is still ongoing.

Twelve miners died and a 13th was critically injured in the Jan. 2 explosion at the Sago Mine in Upshur County.

Gov. Joe Manchin ordered the public hearing — almost unheard of in the U.S. coal industry in recent years — to try to get to the bottom of the disaster, the worst in West Virginia in nearly 40 years.

Lengthy questioning by families of the Sago miners, who say they want the investigation to prevent future such disasters, has pushed the hearing beyond the two days that hearing chairman Davitt McAteer, Manchin’s special adviser on mine safety, had scheduled.

During an afternoon session Wednesday on ICG’s internal investigation, Virginia Tech engineering professor Thomas Novak presented a slide show about his study of the lightning theory for the company. Earlier in the day, ICG had provided regulators with a 21-page report on the matter, also prepared by Novak.

Novak explained two possible scenarios for the lightning’s path: From power lines 300 feet from a poplar tree hit by a large strike and more than a mile from the mine entry, or through the earth itself.

Under the power line theory, Novak said, a charge from the lighting would have jumped to the power line over an electric or a magnetic field, and traveled about two miles from there along wires that connect to the mine at its main entrance. From there, Novak’s theory goes, the charge would be carried along the mine conveyor belt.

After making its way deep into the mine, Novak theorized, the charge rose along chains that hold up the belt structure to wire mesh used to support the mine roof. Then, he said, it would have had to jump across a break in the mesh at the spot where the mesh was cut and into the sealed part of the mine where the explosion is thought to have occurred.

Another possibility is that lightning traveled directly through the ground — either from the tree or from an unreported and undetected lightning strike directly above the sealed area.

“The question remains, we know lightning hit, [but] how did it get to the sealed area to ignite the explosion,” Novak testified in the hearing.

In his report, Novak said that there was a “lack of evidence” to support other explosion causes, such as a roof fall in the sealed area. ICG had closed that area because repeated roof falls there made mining dangerous and difficult.

But Chuck Dunbar, an ICG general manager, testified that the company found evidence in the sealed area of two new roof falls and one continuation of an older roof fall.

Dunbar said that ICG believes that blast and dust patterns indicate that the ignition did not occur in the area of those falls.

Pam Campbell, the sister-in-law of Sago miner Marty Bennett, grilled Novak about various disclaimers in this written report.

Among other things, the report cautioned, “the definitive mechanism in which lightning penetrated the sealed area has not been determined.” Also, it said, “work still needs to be performed before a definitive conclusion can be drawn.”

Given those statements, Campbell told Novak, “You cannot sit over there and tell me that this was definitely lightning because right there in your report you said that you need more data.”

When Novak explained that he had not taken the time yet to do certain tests, Sago miner Fred Ware Jr.’s daughter Peggy Cohen told him, “You know what? My dad is dead, and I think you need to make the time if you’re going to make these conclusions that it was lightning.”

Staff writer Ken Ward Jr.’s continued coverage of the Sago mine disaster and mine safety is being supported by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation.

To contact Ward, use e-mail, or call 348-1702.


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