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Sago Operator Cited for Flawed Breathing Gear

West Virginia state regulators have cited the operator of the Sago Mine for letting its workers carry defective self-contained, self-rescuers (SCSR), according to the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training (MHST).

West Virginia MHST spokeswoman Caryn Gersham told that state inspector Jeff Bennett cited the International Coal Group's (ICG) Wolf Run Mining Co. for allowing their miners to wear emergency breathing devices with faulty heat indicators. Twelve miners working in the mine on Jan. 2 died when explosions blocked their exit from the mine and they ran out of breathing air.

The state, after Bennett's inspection, cited the mining company for failing to provide each miner with a functional air pack or SCSR and for failing to train miners on how to use them, both of which are violations of West Virginia law. Bennett also created a list of recommendations for the mining company, though Gersham said she didn't know what those recommendations were.

According to reports, in at least six out of the 50 SCSRs inspected by Bennett, heat indicators showed that the units were exposed to temperatures over 130 F – conditions that would make the devices inoperable as excessive heat can damage rubber parts such as air hoses.

The violations were issued on Sept. 7 but only recently have come to light because, according to Gersham, "no reporter got wind of it." She also said she didn't know how much Wolf Run Mining Co. will be fined.

ICG is Contesting the Citations

ICG spokesperson Ira Gamm told in an e-mail statement that the company has "contested the citation from the West Virginia Office of MHST and disputes the inspector's assertion that the miners did not know or were not trained on proper SCSR use."

Gamm also said that it is a miner's responsibility to visually inspect his SCSR and to report it to ICG if he finds the heat indicator does not pass visual inspection.

About a month before the state's citation, ICG submitted to the West Virginia MHST an inventory of more than 170 SCSRs used at the Sago Mine as part of an emergency rule introduced by West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin. The purpose of the inventory, according to the state office, is to track the use and conditions of SCSRs and to identify specific problems that need to be targeted for attention and study.

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