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Managers at Sago Mine face further scrutiny from MSHA

BUCKHANNON — Several International Coal Group managers are under additional scrutiny by federal investigators for potential safety violations uncovered during the probe of Sago Mine disaster, officials revealed Thursday.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration asked ICG officials who are subject to the probe not to make statements or answer questions at this week’s public hearings into the Jan. 2 explosion.

Ed Clair, MSHA’s top lawyer, confirmed the existence of an “additional investigation” of several Sago officials. Clair was responding to a question from Debbie Hamner, the widow of Sago victim George Hamner.

Clair said the probe is not currently a criminal investigation. He would not tell Hamner exactly what kind of investigation it was or provide any more details.

“I’m not going to answer that question,” Clair said. “It is an extremely sensitive matter, and I’m not prepared to address it.”

During Thursday’s final public hearing session, Hamner asked MSHA officials to confirm that they had asked Sago safety director Al Schoonover, maintenance foreman Denver Wilfong and fireboss John Boni not to take part in the hearing.

In a previous interview with investigators, Boni had testified that, at Schoonover’s direction, he falsely certified that he had received annual safety training.

Wilfong had told investigators that the Sago Mine did not have lightning arresters, equipment similar to surge protectors, on some of its electrical equipment.

Already, one former Sago Mine foreman has been charged with criminal violations that he lied about conducting mine safety checks and about his qualifications as a mine examiner. Those charges stemmed from alleged actions more than a year before the explosion.

In an unrelated probe, U.S. Attorney Charles Miller in Charleston has confirmed that he is conducting a criminal investigation of safety problems at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County, where two miners died in a January fire.

In the Sago probe, Clair would confirm in an interview only that the investigation did not concern any complaints by miners that they were discriminated against for reporting safety problems.

Such discrimination investigations are among the only other types of probes that MSHA has legal authority to conduct.

One other is a “special investigation.” In that type of probe, MSHA examines potential knowing and willful violations of mine safety rules.

Depending on the outcome, special investigations can lead to civil citations issued to individual corporate agents or to referrals to the prosecutors for criminal investigation.

Bob Friend, an acting deputy assistant secretary of labor for MSHA, refused during a press briefing to say whether a special investigation had been launched as part of the Sago probe.

But Friend did say, “It wouldn’t be unusual to have a special investigation in a disaster such as this.”

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


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