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Sago tragedy

TWELVE miners would not have died after the Sago mine explosion if they had been given better breathing and communications devices and if rescuers had gone underground sooner, according to Gov. Joe Manchin’s independent investigator.

“At the Sago Mine, everything that could go wrong did go wrong,” Davitt McAteer wrote in his report on the Jan. 2 explosion.

McAteer, former director of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, was appointed by the governor to investigate the blast. Among the findings:

s Lightning probably caused the explosion, but the lightning’s path is still unknown. International Coal Group failed to properly ground the mine’s electrical system and did not install lightning arrestors at key spots as required by federal rules. It is not clear if these violations directly contributed to the disaster. More study is required to safeguard other mines from lightning strikes and methane ignitions.

s The blast would have been much less deadly if a block wall sealing off an unused area had been stronger. The mine used lightweight Omega foam blocks able to withstand only 20 pounds of pressure per square inch. The lighter blocks were approved by MSHA even though they were not “explosion proof” as required by law. McAteer recommends banning the weaker blocks. Wednesday, MSHA announced that it would require 50 psi, a move the agency had delayed twice.

s Similar lightweight block walls in other mines should be reinforced with stronger blocks, or those areas should be ventilated or the dangerous gases made inert.

s Mine operators should develop plans for underground refuge chambers by Jan. 2, and have them installed within a year. Such chambers are common in mines around the world, and give trapped miners a safe room with air, water and food where they can await rescue. The 1969 U.S. mine safety law, passed after West Virginia’s 1968 Farmington disaster, anticipated such chambers, but they were never required.

s All miners’ breathing devices should be reviewed to find if they work, and they should be regularly tested in mines, not aboveground in ideal conditions. Miners have complained that the devices are difficult to operate in sightless, stifling conditions when they are needed. The devices take a regular beating in routine mining.

s Mine operators should develop comprehensive emergency plans and test them periodically for effectiveness.

s Miners should be given two-way communication devices, but until they are available, they should have better one-way communications. McAteer described miners at Sago tapping on roof bolts, the old-fashioned way of letting the world know they were alive. But no one on the surface was listening. The equipment to hear it takes hours to set up and requires all other rescue activity to be suspended.

Manchin showed real leadership in asking McAteer to head this investigation. Now, the real test is whether the state will implement what Manchin’s expert recommends.

The more that is learned of Sago, the more clear it becomes that safety laws and rules have a purpose. They were passed in reaction to some disaster in the past, often disasters that killed hundreds of people. After every tragedy, stricken people vow never to forget. But each day that safety laws are not followed is a day that the world has forgotten those who died.

“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.

These lessons must not be ignored.


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