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Sago families look to Obama

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Peggy Cohen's youngest son, Hunter, was only 2 years old when the Sago Mine blew up. Today, he still blows kisses whenever the family goes by his grandfather's grave.

Cohen's father, Fred Ware, was among the 12 miners killed in the Sago Mine disaster. The family still feels the loss three years later.

"My other son, Marc, breaks down and cries still for his pawpaw," Cohen said last month. "I often cry, too, but I know that Dad is watching over us and we have our own special guardian angel above."

At the same time, Cohen says she worries about the safety of other miners, and holds out hope that a change in the White House might help more families from losing husbands, fathers and sons in the nation's coal mines.

"We cannot take mine safety lightly," Cohen said in an e-mail message. "There is still plenty of work which needs to be done to protect our miners. This is my hope for our new president and his staff."

Three years ago this morning, an explosion ripped through International Coal Group's Sago Mine, located outside Buckhannon in Upshur County.

Within hours, the national media had focused on 13 missing miners. Twelve of those workers died before rescuers could reach them 40 hours later. Only Randal McCloy Jr. survived.

The disaster - West Virginia's worst in nearly 40 years - was the first of four major coal-mining accidents over the next 18 months. Three weeks later, two more miners died in Massey Energy's Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine.

In May 2006, five workers died in an explosion at the Kentucky Darby Mine. In August 2007, nine miners died in a cave-in at Murray Energy's Crandall Canyon operation in Utah.

In response, there's been a flurry of new laws, tougher regulations and demands for increased inspections and enforcement. Much progress has been made. Last year, for example, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration for the first time completed all of its mandated quarterly inspections of underground coal mines nationwide.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., pushed for additional funding to replace MSHA inspection jobs that had been cut by Bush.

"There are visibly more coal inspectors on the ground, and nearly 100 additional federal enforcement personnel hired in West Virginia," Byrd said. "Looking at mining conditions since the Sago tragedy, I think we can fairly say we're on the right track - and believe me, we're not going to let up."

Still, at least 98 coal miners have died on the job in the United States since the Sago Mine blew up. Through Wednesday afternoon, coal-mining deaths in 2008 were down over the previous year, from 34 to 29. West Virginia was tied with Kentucky for the most mining deaths, with eight. West Virginia's figure could bump up to nine, if the death this week of a CONSOL Energy foreman at the company's McElroy operation is classified as mining-related.

And despite improvements, many critics say MSHA remains a troubled agency damaged by Bush administration budget cuts and efforts to replace tough enforcement with industry-friendly "compliance assistant" programs.

"President-elect Obama needs to re-orient MSHA entirely," said Nathan Fetty, a mine safety lawyer with the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment. "MSHA needs leadership who wants to tackle the biggest health and safety problems facing miners without waiting for a court or Congress to tell the agency to act."

Earlier this week, MSHA finalized the last two key rules required by the MINER Act passed by Congress in 2006 after Sago, Aracoma and Darby. The rules require mine operators to provide underground shelters to help miners surface explosions and fires and tighten the restrictions on the use of conveyor belt tunnels to ventilate underground mines. But MSHA also recently announced that it doesn't believe truly wireless communications equipment will be available by a congressional deadline of mid-June 2009.

Congressional leaders believe MSHA has been far to slow to implement MINER Act requirements, and hope that a new administration will move more swiftly.

And Labor Secretary Elaine Chao has pushed for a new rule - not yet finalized - to drug test miners, while MSHA officials say they are too busy to write tougher limits on coal dust to fight a recent resurgence of deadly black lung disease.

"Sago demonstrated how cutting government programs, popular as that may be as a political tactic, can have truly detrimental, and even fatal, effects," said Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va.

"The government faces incredibly tough budgetary times," Rahall said. "But, with the examples of Sago and Aracoma still strong in our memories, I expect the Obama administration to have greater respect than the Bush White House for the value of a properly financed MSHA to ensuring the safety of America's miners."

During his campaign and since then, President-elect Barack Obama has said little about coal-mine safety. Campaign aides and transition staff declined requests for comment on Obama's plans for MSHA. It could be several months before an announcement is made on whom Obama will put in charge of the agency.

In late October, Obama called lax MSHA enforcement "one of the worst disasters of the Bush administration."

"In my Department of Labor, the Administrator of Mine Safety and Health will be an advocate for miners' safety and health, not for the mining companies' bottom lines," Obama said in a letter to the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents rank-and-file MSHA workers.

"Our mine safety program will have the staffing and the enforcement tools needed to get the job done."

So far, at least four of the families that sued ICG over the Sago explosion have settled their cases. Eight other cases are still pending.

In mid-December, Scott Depot-based ICG announced it was going to permanently seal the Sago Mine. The mine had reopened several months after the explosion, but then was idled in March 2007 because of bad geology.

Some mystery still clouds the January 2006 explosion. Family members have never really believed the conclusion of state and federal investigators that a lightning strike was "the most likely" source of ignition for the blast.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com

or 304-348-1702.


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