Report: No Clear Cause of Sago Explosion

The long-awaited report from J. Davitt McAteer former MSHA head and now advisor to West Virginia governor Joe Manchin has not been able to identify the "proximate cause of the Sago explosion," a catastrophe that caused the death of 12 miners and prompted the passing of the MINER Act.

McAteer introduced the report findings during a press conference on July 19 in Buckhannon, W.Va. He acknowledged that the report was preliminary and emphasized that the investigation will continue once all the evidence determining the cause of the blast has been gathered.

"Once the proximate cause [of the explosion] has been identified, further work will be required in order to be able to make specific recommendations necessary to reliably protect underground mines and miners against a repetition of the Sago Mine disaster," he said.

The report mentioned that lightening, along with a mixture of air and explosive methane, were the probable ignition sources of the explosion, but McAteer said that investigators haven't been able to find the means in which the lightening might have entered the sealed area.

Seal Blocks Not Strong Enough

McAteer did note, however, that the seals in the Sago Mines were not properly constructed. During the press conference, McAteer revealed that the miners who died would have been alive today if the seals had been able to withstand the blast.

Federal law requires that mine seals be able to contain an explosion, but the 40-inch, dense-foam Omega Blocks - made to resist a blast of 20 psi were pulverized.

The Jan. 2 blast killed one miner immediately and stranded a dozen others, 11 of whom succumbed to deadly gasses. The only survivor, Randal McCloy Jr., suffered brain damage.

In response to the report, the International Coal Group, the Sago Mine's owner, said that while they welcomed the release of the McAteer's report, they disagreed with his comments in regards to the poor construction of the mine seals. "ICG believes that the seals were built in compliance with the MSHA approved plan using construction techniques consistent with industry practice," the coal company said in a statement.

The company also added: "Furthermore, ICG believes that physical evidence demonstrates that the explosion forces at the seals significantly exceeded the 20 psi (pounds-per-square-inch) design strength requirement."

Recommendations for Safer Mines

Despite not being able to identify the definitive cause of the explosion, the 101-page report was able to reach conclusions on the best way to protect underground mines and miners and avoid another tragedy like the Sago Mine disaster.

McAteer's report calls on mine operators to install underground rescue chambers by January 2008, and recommends that blast-resistance standards for mine seals be increased. The report urged the testing of self-contained self-rescuers, and recommended that mines use concrete blocks instead of dense foams to seal mined-out areas. Other recommendations included:

  • Research, develop and adopt emergency measures
  • Require mine operators to strengthen alternative seals
  • Develop comprehensive emergency plans
  • Ensure that miners have two-way communications
  • Require implementation of tracking systems
  • Undertake a comprehensive review of West Virginia's mine rescue systems
  • Require installation of lifelines
  • Expand, research, development and manufacturing opportunities

In addition to the recommendations, the report also offered steps to enhance prevention, improve electrical safety, advance mine emergency preparedness among other measures. To access a copy of the report, visit www.wvgov.org under the McAteer Report: Sago Mine Tragedy icon.

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