Whitesburg KY

MSHA ruling leaves doubt

For a lay person, the notion that lightning would hit the ground, find its way through layers of rock and emerge in a nearby coal mine, then set off a methane explosion that led to 12 miners’ deaths, sounds a bit far-fetched.

That’s how International Coal Group, which operated the Sago Mine, and now the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, which just concluded a 16-month investigation, think this tragedy happened. State regulators like this theory, too.

The United Mine Workers and families of the victims beg to differ. They really do beg to differ, because they desperately want somebody to pay attention to all the evidence that ICG ran a bad a mine, an unsafe mine.

The UMW’s Cecil Roberts says the union considers the lightning theory far-fetched and points out that other, less exotic, possible causes haven’t been conclusively ruled out. He insists, “We do not believe MSHA or anyone else has conclusively or satisfactorily demonstrated how a charge from a lightning strike over two miles away entered the sealed area of the mine without a conduit from the surface.”

Kentucky coal mine safety advocate Tony Oppegard congratulates Sago’s owner-operators on the spin they’ve given this story. He says, “ICG has done a rather masterful PR job as far as focusing public attention on the lightning theory from the very beginning. But the story of Sago is more than a lightning story.”

If lightning really can do what the MSHA report suggests, then clearly underground operations should be halted, and miners brought outside, any time bad storms move through the area. Mr. Roberts calls for emergency regulations to deal with this danger.

Of course, the truth is, the lessons of Sago are much broader than the need to watch for lightning bolts. Mr. Roberts put it best: “Twelve men are dead today who should not be.”

The victims’ families are whipsawed by competing explanations and claims.

West Virginia mine safety director Ronald Wooten declared at one point that Sago was a “well-operated coal mine.” But last week MSHA’s Richard Stickler said, “I would conclude safety was not a top priority at this operation.” The year before the disaster, the mine had 208 safety citations and an accident rate double the national average.

The fact is, a long list of problems expanded the methane explosion into the tragedy it became, including poorly built ventilation seals, weak federal seal regulations, and a flawed mine rescue system.

The probe into what happened at Sago, over in West Virginia, has enormous significance here in Kentucky, a state that has even more coal mines. Both states already have passed new laws in an attempt to have prevent another such incident.

But it may be that Congress ultimately will have to sort through all the contradictions and pass some final legal benediction on these sad events.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House committee that’s been closest to the issues, echoed Mr. Roberts when he said after the MSHA report, ” Regardless of whether the explosion’s ignition source was lightning or friction in the roof of the mine, the fact remains that, after the explosion, those miners still did not have to die.”

– The Courier-Journal, Louisville

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