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Sago report proposes reforms

BUCKHANNON — Lightning probably ignited the Jan. 2 explosion at the Sago Mine, but 12 miners would not have died if they had been given better breathing devices and communications gear and if rescuers had gone underground sooner, according to an independent report commissioned by Gov. Joe Manchin.

Perhaps most importantly, the miners would likely be alive today if government regulators had not allowed the use of foam block seals that do not meet a 1969 legal mandate to be “explosion proof,” according to the report released Wednesday by the Manchin administration.

“At the Sago Mine, everything that could go wrong did go wrong,” said the 97-page report, written by Davitt McAteer, a longtime mine safety advocate who headed the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration.

McAteer recommended a long list of reforms that he said would prevent a recurrence of Sago, including mandating refuge chambers in underground mines to give trapped workers clean air and shelter while they await rescuers.

Also, the report calls for immediately requiring better communications devices in underground mines and improving the reliability of self-contained self-rescuers, or SCSRs, meant to give miners clean air while they escape smoke-filled tunnels.

The report outlined a variety of long-term changes in mine safety and rescue, but also proposed several key “default” reforms that McAteer said could be adopted immediately, rather than waiting for better or perfect technology to come along.

For example, the report said, better one-way communications and miner tracking devices are available, and should not be ignored while the industry waits for manufacturers to perfect two-way communications equipment.

“For a variety of reasons, some in the coal mining industry have never seen fit to put safety on par with production,” McAteer said in the report. “That must change — and we believe is changing.

“All that is needed now is the will to accelerate the momentum for change that began building in the dark hours after the outcome of the Sago disaster, when the governor of West Virginia pledged that the miners lost in that disaster would not be forgotten in the way that so many thousands of miners lost in the past have been forgotten,” the report concluded.

Manchin, still walking on crutches after major knee surgery, appeared briefly at a news conference at West Virginia Wesleyan College after receiving McAteer’s report in the same private meeting where it was given to Sago victims’ families.

“I know there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered, and we’re still looking for those answers,” the governor said, as several Sago family members looked on.

Manchin said that his administration was just beginning to review McAteer’s report and recommended reforms.

“We’ll be evaluating all of that, and we’ll be making decisions about how we increase the safety of every mine in West Virginia,” Manchin said. “I can assure you that the state of West Virginia will move forward, and will move forward swiftly to protect our miners and the workplace of every person in West Virginia.”

At least one Sago family member indicated that the governor, a former coal broker, had promised the miners’ families more than that.

“I personally asked the governor if he was going to put his personal interest in the coal industry aside to make sure that he is unbiased ... He assured me that he was going to take a look at all of the recommendations and that he was going to implement these regulations at the state level,” said Pam Campbell, who lost her brother-in-law, Marty Bennett, in the disaster. “I’m holding the governor to that.”

Other family members said they planned to read the report Wednesday night, and perhaps release a more detailed response statement sometime today.

In a statement Wednesday, the United Mine Workers union said that it plans to soon release its safety department’s report on the Sago disaster.

At the Sago Mine south of Buckhannon in Upshur County, one miner was killed by the impact of the explosion that ripped through the mine at about 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 2. Twelve other miners took refuge behind a makeshift barricade, but 11 of them succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning before rescuers reached them 41 hours later. One miner, Randal McCloy, survived and continues what his doctors say is a miraculous recovery.

During his press conference, McAteer said that the “proximate cause” of the explosion is still not known. But in his report, McAteer wrote that lightning “probably caused the explosion.”

“More remains to be learned, however, about how lightning made its way into the sealed area where the methane ignition took place, and, depending on how that question is answered, specific steps must then be taken to protect other underground mines and miners against the risk of lightning-related methane ignitions,” the report said.

The report also noted that International Coal Group “failed to properly ground the mine’s electrical power infrastructure in its entirety, and failed to install lightning arrestors at some key locations as required by federal regulations.” It is not clear if these violations “directly contributed” to the disaster, McAteer wrote, “but there is no question that they represent serious failures of mine management.”

McAteer also focused criticism on the seals, noting that federal law has for 37 years required mine operators to use “explosion-proof” walls to block off mined-out areas that they choose to seal and no longer police for methane buildups and other hazards.

Before McAteer took office, MSHA in 1992 wrote a regulation to allow any seals that can withstand a 20-pounds-per-square-inch blast to meet the legal standard. Research at the time showed that limit might not always be strong enough, and MSHA tests to approve the foam blocks ICG used did not consider a head-on blast of the type that apparently occurred at Sago, McAteer said in his report.

“The seals that should have helped contain the explosion were not sufficiently explosion-proof and never should have been approved for that purpose,” McAteer wrote. “The catastrophic failure of the Omega block seals clearly made the explosion far more lethal than would otherwise have been the case.”

On Wednesday afternoon, MSHA announced that it would implement a 50-psi standard. MSHA had announced plans for changes in its seal requirements on May 22, two days after five miners died in a seal-related explosion in the Darby Mine in Harlan County, Ky. Since then, MSHA has twice delayed implementation of its plans.

In discussing the much-delayed Sago rescue effort, McAteer concluded, “There would have been no disaster if mine rescue teams had been sent into the mine sooner and allowed to advance ... without being required to systematically assess post-explosion conditions throughout the mine on the way in.

“But there were delays in organizing the rescue, and the absence of a [gas testing machine] for much of the first day meant that gases indicative of the presence or absence of a fire could not be accurately measured,” the report said.

“The command center chose a cautious, time-consuming approach geared to protecting rather than risking the lives of the mine rescue team members,” the report said.

“But that approach, whatever its merits, greatly diminished the chances of winning the race against deadly carbon monoxide.”

The Sago report is available online at www.wvgov.-

org/SagoMineDisasterJuly2006FINAL.pdf

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

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

Sago recommendations

Here are the 12 major recommendations made in a report on the Sago Mine disaster released Wednesday by Davitt McAteer, Gov Joe Manchin’s special adviser on mine safety issues:

1. Research, develop and adopt emergency measures to enhance protection against explosions from lightning entering mines and sealed areas.

2. Permanently ban the use of Omega blocks as seals, because the 20 pounds-per-square-inch standard is inadequate, and Omega blocks may not even meet that standard.

3. Require mine operators to strengthen existing alternative seals, by preparing, within 90 days, a plan to construct solid concrete block or comparable seal structures in front of Omega block seals, or take other precautions such as ventilating or inerting gases in sealed areas.

4. Evaluate the existing seal standards and consider, at a minimum, upgrading to the 50 psi standard adopted in other mining countries.

5. Require mine operators to develop, by Jan. 2, 2007, plans for installing refuge chambers in underground mines, with the goal of having such chambers installed by Jan. 2, 2008.

6. Conduct a statewide review of all self-contained, self-rescuers currently in use to determine if they work or are damaged, and require ongoing, in-mine testing.

7. Develop comprehensive mine emergency plans and require operators to test them periodically for effectiveness.

8. Ensure that miners have two-way communications, and install better one-way communications until two-way systems are available.

9. Require implementation of tracking systems that are currently available.

10. Undertake a comprehensive review of West Virginia’s mine rescue systems.

11. Require installation of directional lifelines to help guide miners during an escape.

12. Expand research, development and manufacturing opportunities in West Virginia to ensure that the state leads the nation in mine safety and health technology and equipment.

Source: Sago Mine disaster preliminary report


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