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Mine ‘well-operated,’ official says

International Coal Group’s Sago Mine in Upshur County was a “well-operated coal mine,” the Manchin administration’s top mine safety official said Thursday.

Ronald Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, said that his agency found no violations that inspectors believe contributed to the Jan. 2 explosion that killed 12 miners.

After the disaster, state inspectors found at least 33 electrical violations, including two for inadequate lightning protections, but said that none played a role in the explosion.

Wooten said that he could not rule out that investigators would find such violations in their continuing Sago probe. But so far, he said, all of the evidence he has seen shows that the mine was managed and operated properly.

“As far as I know it was,” Wooten said in a phone interview. “That’s all I can tell you. To my knowledge, it was a well-operated coal mine.

“I have nothing to tell me that it was not, not withstanding that there were violations written,” he said. “Those are only allegations and we have to prove those violations.”

In both 2004 and 2005, the Sago Mine reported an injury rate of more than twice the national average, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. During those years, the mine was cited for more than 260 violations by MSHA inspectors.

MSHA officials had scheduled a high-level meeting with ICG managers to try to push for safety improvements at the mine, but the explosion happened a few days before the meeting date.

State inspectors also found repeated violations, but testified that they believed the mine was improving during the last three months of 2005.

During two interviews on Wednesday evening and Thursday afternoon, Wooten discussed the Sago disaster publicly for the first time since a botched effort by state officials on Dec. 11 to brief Sago victims’ families on their investigation findings.

Though copies leaked out and were briefly available on a state Web site, Wooten’s agency has still not officially released its report to the public.

Wooten said that would not happen until January, when the state is able to schedule a meeting of the Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety so board members can review the findings. Also, Wooten said, it is not clear when state officials will publicly release a slide presentation given to victims’ families at a meeting in Buckhannon on Wednesday.

“Everything is just a little bit confused right now as far as when the thing is actually going to be released,” Wooten said.

On Thursday, the mine safety office removed from its Web site the transcripts of investigation interviews and of the Sago public hearings held by special investigator Davitt McAteer in May.

“If we need to put them back up, we can put them back up,” Wooten said. “I think they just came off as a result of being an aged item.”

In their report, state investigators said that lighting probably caused the Sago explosion, but that they have not been able to pinpoint how the electrical charge got into the mine.

“If I could answer all of the questions, I would do it in a minute,” Wooten said Thursday night. “But we may never get more answers.”

Investigators are continuing to try to sort out the lightning’s route into the mine, but Wooten said that they have ruled out conduction along a mine phone line or battery charging system that were cited for not having required lighting arresters.

“That particular line showed no damage whatsoever, and it is very susceptible to showing damage,” Wooten said of the phone line. “Had it been subjected to a charge, it would have fried.”

Wooten said that the state is also exploring options for mandating better construction, location and monitoring of underground mine seals to prevent future explosions from methane building up in mined-out areas.

“There is a thinking by some that when you seal an area, you are protecting that area from people, not protecting people from that area — that as long as people aren’t there to cause an ignition, nothing will happen,” Wooten said. “We know now that is not true.”

Wooten also said that it would not be practical to evacuate underground mines during lightning storms until the state figures out another way to prevent lightning-induced explosions.

“Let’s assume that the explosion was caused by a roof fall behind the seals,” Wooten said. “Do you evacuate the mine to wait for a roof fall? You would never know.”


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