UMW Blames Mine Roof Friction For Deadly Sago Explosion

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) - Friction between rocks and the metal
roof-support system of the Sago Mine - not lightning - probably
sparked the methane gas explosion that killed 12 men last year, the
United Mine Workers argued Thursday.
The union's report differs from the conclusions of state
investigators and the mine's owner that a lightning strike somehow
traveled two miles and ignited gas that had accumulated naturally
in a mined-out and sealed-off area.
The report lashes out at the federal Mine Safety and Health
Administration for what it calls misguided decisions in the months
and years preceding the explosion, and accuses it of putting
concern about coal companies' profits ahead of miner safety.
The UMW demands the agency "re-establish itself as the
government's advocate for miners," prohibit former industry
executives from holding the highest offices in the agency and
develop a public hearing-style investigation process.
Two previous reports - one by the West Virginia Office of
Miners' Health, Safety and Training, one by mine owner
International Coal Group Inc. - identified lightning as the most
likely cause. A third report, by a former MSHA chief and special
adviser to Gov. Joe Manchin, said lightning could not be ruled out.
But the UMW, which participated in the Sago investigation as a
legal representative of several workers at the nonunion mine, said
the chances of lightning being the cause are "so remote as to be
practically impossible."
MSHA has yet to release its own findings about Sago. MSHA
director Richard Stickler, a former coal industry executive, said
Thursday that his agency shares the union's goal of improving
safety and has hired experts to examine the potential causes of the
Sago blast.
Atmospheric alarms in the mine sounded at nearly the same
instant as a documented lightning strike, at 6:26 a.m. on Jan. 2,
2006. But unlike other coal mine blasts linked to lightning, the
UMW says, there was no metal conduit at Sago that could have
carried the charge that far.
Rather, the union contends, a spark likely came from rocks
banging together or into the network of metal screens, plates and
bolts used to hold up a frequently wet and steadily collapsing
shale and sandstone roof. Metal rubbing on metal also could have
created a spark, the report says.
Decisions by ICG and MSHA in the months and years before the
accident created conditions ripe for an explosion, the UMW charges.
The union cited repeated changes to the roof-control plan and a
rare practice known as "second mining," in which operators mine
coal seams separated vertically by many feet of rock.
At Sago, the process left some areas in the mine more than 18
feet high, which the UMW says is dangerous. It wants second mining
banned, saying it increases the risk of roof falls and wall
collapses, and that it allows more methane than normal to
"It is not factual to say that events beyond the control of the
mine operator or the regulatory agencies simply happened," the
report says. "The truth is that ICG failed the miners at Sago, and
so did our government."
ICG, which is facing lawsuits by families of most of the Sago
victims, had not seen and did not immediately comment on the UMW
report. But it has previously said the lightning evidence is too
strong to ignore, and has taken safety measures aimed at preventing
similar explosions.
The union also faults ICG and MSHA for creating and approving
faulty ventilation plans that left Sago miners trapped in poisoned
air for more than 41 hours, and for allowing sloppy construction of
what it contends were substandard seals on the mined-out areas.
One miner was killed in the Jan. 2, 2006, explosion, and 11
others died of carbon-monoxide poisoning as they waited to be
rescued. One miner survived.
The report calls on MSHA to take immediate control of rescue and
recovery operations, saying ICG took too long to get teams into the
mine. It also seeks improvements in safety and communications in
underground mines, as well as tougher standards for seals.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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