June 4, 2007 The Pump Handle 0Comment

The editors at the Charleston Gazette and the Louisville Courier-Journal deserve a pat on the back for allowing their reporters to follow-up on worker safety and health stories.  Ken Ward at the Charleston Gazette is still covering important matters related to MSHA and the Sago mine, more than 15 months after the terrible January 2, 2006 disaster.  In “MSHA citations detail Sago problems” (June 3) he describes 169 pages of citations released by MSHA because of a Freedom of Information Act request.  Likewise, the story by Ralph Dunlop at the Louisville Courier-Journal “Mine scrutiny minimal despite record” (June 3) reports that the Stillhouse Mine No. 1 has received only the minimum number of required inspections despite the mine operator’s history of reckless disregard for mine safety regulations.

I suspect most newspaper editors are quick to say “we’ve already done lots of stories on mine safety.”  Meaning, once the gruesome headlines and grieving widows are gone, so are the reporters.  But not Ward, and not Dunlop.  To you editors, whoever you are, thank you. 

In Dunlop’s piece, he describes how two federal inspectors responded to an anonymous complaint about the Harlan County, KY Stillhouse Mine.

“They found eight men working more than five miles underground with the mine fan off — an illegal condition as dangerous as any in coal mining.  The fan had been off for approximately six hours…so there was no fresh air circulating to disperse potentially explosive concentrations of methane gas and coal dust–both of which were in plentiful supply.”

MSHA inspector William Clark wrote:

“This was an intentional and flagrant violation that very likely could result in a methane explosion.”

Reporter Ralph Dunlop reminds readers that this unexcusable situation occurred “16 months to the day after two Stillhouse miners had been crushed to death in a massive roof fall,” and reports that the mine has not been the target of any increased MSHA scrutiny.  He notes that MSHA has initiated a criminal investigation related to the two fatalities, but MSHA officials failed to respond to repeated requests to discuss the post-fatality inspections at the mine.  (Read the full story here.)

Ken Ward’s article digs into the “non-contributory” violations issued at the Sago mine by MSHA as part of its 14 month investigation of the disaster.

“When it released its investigation report, MSHA did not make copies of the 149 non-contributory violations available to Sago victims’ families or the media.  Agency officials later refused to release the documents without a formal Freedom of Information Act request.  After the Sunday Gazette-Mail filed such a request, MSHA officials on May 29 posted the citations and orders on the agency’s website.”

“Among the documents are several that offer details of International Coal Group’s safety practices in the weeks before the disaster and on the day of the explosion itself.  For example, on the day prior to the explosion, three miners worked on a water pump without mine managers first performing a pre-shift safety examintion.  Also in the week prior to the explosion, a mine foreman on at least 10 occasions did not counter sign the pre-shift safety check logbook, affirming that the examinations were conducted properly.”

Ward recounts for us the depth of the safety hazards found at the Sago mine.  His story leaves us wondering how MSHA and the Department of Labor’s Solicitor’s Office determined that not one, not a single one, of these many serious violations contributed to deaths of the 12 Sago miners and the injuries sustained by those who survived and escaped the explosion.

Update:  A follow-up editorial in the June 5, 2007 issue of the Louisville Courier-Journal says “When you hear politicians and bureaucrats claim they are doing everything possible to protect coal miners, don’t you believe it.” Read “Reckless disregard” and its no-muss-no-fuss criticism of Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, her husband Senator Mitch McConnell, KY Governor Ernie Fletcher, and KY State official Chuck Wolfe.

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