When an explosion ripped through the Sago Mine on Jan. 2, killing 12 workers, coal mine safety again became a national issue.The Sunday Gazette-Mail wanted to take a broader look, to examine the daily dangers faced by the 79,000 coal miners who help provide more than half of the nationís electricity.Reporter Ken Ward Jr. had been covering mine safety on and off for much of his 15 years at the newspaper. And he had recently been awarded a six-month fellowship by the Alicia Patterson Foundation to study the coal industry.Under the direction of City Editor Robert J. Byers, Ward narrowed the focus of his fellowship to a project on coal mine safety. This story, the first in a series of special reports, is the result of that work.
Since April, Ward has traveled the coalfields of West Virginia and visited mining areas in Alabama, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, conducting more than 100 interviews with coal miners, mine operators, mine safety experts, government inspectors and elected officials.Ward has filed more than two dozen public records requests, and analyzed numerous government computer databases that detail mine safety inspections and enforcement.Also, Ward examined federal investigation reports concerning the deaths of 320 miners over the last decade, and built his own database to study the findings. Ward also reviewed federal investigation reports from more than two dozen major coal-mining disasters dating back to 1970, and studied dozens of technical papers about mine safety issues.Future stories will examine, among other issues, the unique dangers faced by strip-mine workers, the controversial emergency breathing devices carried by all coal miners, and the oversight record of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.