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Sago families urge Manchin to follow through on disaster report

Families of the Sago Mine victims on Thursday urged Gov. Joe Manchin to implement the recommendations in a report by independent investigator Davitt McAteer.

“The report correctly recognizes that coal mines are safe,” the families said in a prepared statement. “The report also correctly says that the mines should be made safer now using all available technology while vigorously developing new and better technology.”

During a news conference Wednesday in Buckhannon, Manchin said that he planned to review McAteer’s recommendations and make “decisions about how we better increase the safety of every mine in West Virginia.”

In their statement, the Sago families said that Manchin “promised us yesterday that he would vigorously and quickly implement these recommendations.”

In the report, 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.

In a news release, Sago Mine owner International Coal Group said that, “based on an initial report, the company supports many of Mr. McAteer’s recommendations for changes in the industry to improve mine safety.”

In their statement, the Sago families said that they are “both grateful for the report and unhappy with it.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to participate in the investigation process,” the families said. “As Mr. McAteer stated in the report, this is the first time in the history of coal mine disaster investigation when family members have participated as we have.”

The families said that they “are also happy with the recommendations contained in the report.

“It is important to us that other coal families do not have to suffer as we have,” the families said.

The families said there “is no excuse” for this year’s coal-mining death toll, which reached 35 with the Tuesday death of Kentucky strip mine worker in a rock collapse.

West Virginia leads the nation with 19 coal-mining deaths this year. In Kentucky, 13 miners have been killed on the job so far this year, including five in the Darby Mine explosion in late May.

The families said that they are also disappointed with parts of the report.

“We were promised that the investigation would uncover the cause of the explosion,” the families said. “The report was issued before the cause was found. We need to find the cause in order to have closure.

“We are also very disappointed that the report suggests that no one was at fault for the Sago mining disaster,” the families said. “It is wrong for the report to draw conclusions like this when the investigation is not complete.”

In his report, McAteer concluded that lightning probably ignited the methane explosion behind a recently sealed area of the mine.

One miner was killed by the blast itself, and 12 others were trapped. By the time rescuers reached them 41 hours later, only one — Randal McCloy — had not succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning.

McAteer said that the series of problems that caused the disaster “were, in almost every instance, failures not of individual human beings, but of systems: mine safety systems, mine emergency management systems, and mine rescue systems that are in desperate need of immediate help.”

In their statement, the Sago families noted that McAteer’s report outlined a long list of safety problems at the mine:

s Methane had built up to an unsafe level in the sealed area.

s Lightning arrestors were missing and electrical systems not properly grounded.

s The seals were poorly constructed and “totally inadequate.”

s SCSRs did not work, which prevented the miners from being able to escape.

“Although the law required ICG to have two mine rescue teams available within two hours, the second team did not arrive until 12:30 p.m.,” the families said. “If two teams had been available ... the Sago miners would have been saved.

“The trapped miners did everything they were trained to do, but the rescue came too late,” the families said.

In Washington, Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., said that the report is a clear indictment of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

“Had sufficient oxygen been available, those miners who barricaded themselves would not have perished,” Rahall said. “Had a better seal been erected between the abandoned and working portions of that mine, that tragedy might well have been averted altogether.

“MSHA had plenty of authority to address these shortcomings, but chose not to,” Rahall said. “No matter what sparked the explosion at Sago, the lack of forward thinking and assertive willingness to enforce the law at the upper echelons of the Mine Safety and Health Administration is equally to blame for the deaths of those 12 men.”

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.


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