Report Blames Company, MSHA for Sago Blast

March 16, 2007
A new report on the January 2006 Sago Mine disaster claims that the tragedy “could have been prevented” and blames the mine company and regulators for making a “series of bad decisions” that caused the deaths of 12 coal miners.

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) assert in the report that if the International Coal Group (ICG) had put safety ahead of profits and if MSHA had followed “the mandates established by Congress in the 1969 Coal Act and the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, all 12 of the trapped miners would have survived.”

Some of the mandates referenced in the report include building “explosion-proof seals or bulkheads” and installing properly equipped emergency shelters.

“Twelve men are dead today who should not be,” UMWA International President Cecil Roberts said, claiming that some of the bad decisions made were done weeks before and hours after the explosion.

Report Questions Lightning Theory

The report questions a theory proposed by ICG and MSHA that the mine explosion could have been caused by lightning, asserting that “there is no evidence that lightning striking the ground near a mining operation has ever traveled into the underground area of a mine without the presence of a conduit from the surface of the mine, and then caused an ignition or explosion of gas or dust.”

Rather, the report determined that a more likely cause of the explosion was “frictional activity from the mine roof” that led to a mixture of air and methane being ignited in the sealed area of the mine.

The report criticizes ICG for the delayed arrival of the rescue teams, not having outfitted the miners with tracking devices and not having published the first rescue plan until approximately 7 hours after the explosion.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney applauded the report's release, pronouncing that the report “confirms the deaths on Jan. 2, 2006, were unnecessary and totally preventable.”

ICG Refutes Report

ICG called the report nothing more than “a political grandstanding” to advance UMWA's “political and organizing agenda.”

“The UMWA has rolled out this so-called report with its usual bombast,” CEO Ben Hatfield said. “However, upon closer review, the report is simply a propaganda piece designed to criticize and undermine the state and federal mine regulators and ICG, whose miners continue to work union-free."

According to ICG, independent investigations led by J. Davitt McAteer – special advisor to West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin and former MSHA head – concluded that the explosion was caused by a lightning strike that ignited methane gas.

The mining company also refuted the union's allegations that the mine rescue teams did not respond in time and that they were not allowed to enter the mine until “complex gas tending analyses” indicated that the risk of a secondary explosion had been eliminated.

UMWA maintains that there was no conduit present at the mine that could have conducted the energy from a lightning strike to the sealed area. But Roberts said that this information, although important, is not the sole reason why the miners perished.

“ ... The fact is that the conditions at the mine of the time of the ignition caused the 12 tragic deaths,” Roberts said. “This tragedy was preventable and should have never occurred.”

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