March 14, 2007 The Pump Handle 0Comment

The United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) will be issuing tomorrow (March 15) a report on the January 2006 Sago Mine disaster.  West Virginia Senators Byrd and Rockefeller are expected to join UMWA President Cecil Roberts in the Senate Dirksen Building at 11:00 am (EST) for a news conference releasing the report.  The UMWA will likely offer their own theory for the cause of the explosion.

Based on previous statements and testimony offered by UMWA officials, I expect the union to reject the theory that the explosion was related to a lightning strike.  Instead, they will probably say that a roof fall behind the sealed area caused the blast. 

A preliminary report on Sago was issued in July 2007 by a team assembled by J. Davitt McAteer (of which I was a part) concluded that a powerful lightning strike contributed in some way to the explosion.  More importantly, we tried to distinguish the cause of the explosion (i.e., a mixture of methane and air in a recently sealed are of the mine) from the cause of the disaster (e.g., supposed “explosion-proof seals,” non-existent underground tracking and communication systems, inoperable self-contained self-rescuers, and a much delayed gas chromatograph.)   I’m hopeful that the UMWA’s report will also describe some of these failures and keep the pressure on coal mine operators to invest in miners’ safety and health. 

On the eve of the UMWA’s report, the operator of the Sago Mine, International Coal Group (ICG), announced that it has ordered emergency refuge shelters for all of its underground coal mines.  (The State of West Virginia recently approved five different emergency shelters for use in underground coal mines.)   The shelters will provide at least 96 hours of breathable air in the event of an emergency, a requirement imposed by the MINER Act of 2006.  

The President and CEO of ICG said “our prompt order for emergency shelters shows we will move quickly to comply with all mandates involving miner safety.” (emphasis added)   How disappointing to hear ICG’s President talking about safety in terms of complying with mandates (that is, just following the rules.)  By now everyone should understand that MSHA rules are the bare minimum.  A mine operators’ safety and health program should go well beyond simply complying with MSHA rules; it should be a proactive comprehensive system of assessing risks and managing them.        

Note: The coal miners at the Sago Mine were not represented by the UMWA, but some of the deceased men were UMWA members because they had worked previously at union mines.  After the disaster, several miners employed at Sago asked the UMWA to represent them during the accident investigation.   

Update (March 15): The UMWA’s report says that 

“ICG failed the miners at Sago, and so did our government.  And when our government failed those miners it failed all miners.” 

The union’s investigation concludes:

“that the most likely cause of the explosion was frictional activity from the mine roof, roof support or support material which created an electrical arc underground that ignited an explosive methane-air mixture in the sealed area….The lightning theory [offered by the mine owner and the State of West Virginia] is based entirely on circumstantial evidence and is so remote as to be practically impossible”….”However, regardless of the cause of the explosion in this instance, had MSHA followed the mandates of Congress, and had ICG operated the mine with an eye firmly focused on miners’ safety, there is every reason to believe that every person underground that day would have survived.”

The House Education and Labor Committee (George Miller, Chairman) has scheduled a hearing on mine safety on March 28.  

Update (March 16):  International Coal Group President Ben Hatfield described the UMWA’s report on the Sago disaster as “nothing more than political grandstanding.”  In a company news release, Hatfield called the union’s assertion that a roof fall caused the explosion at the Sago mine “patently absurd,” and

“there is significant scientific and circumstantial evidence that supports the finding that lightning caused the explosion.  This evidence has been detailed in previous reports as well as public hearings.  The union ignores this evidence…[and] offers absolutely no evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, to support its supposition that a roof fall trigged the explosion.”

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has not yet issued its investigation report on the disaster.  In an interview a few months ago with the Associated Press, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for MSHA, Richard Stickler, said

“We’re really trying to figure out what part lightning played and if lightning did play a part, how did that happen?  There’s a lot of things we don’t understand at this point.”

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