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United Mine Workers investigators on Thursday said friction between roof rocks and metal roof supports — not lightning — ignited the explosion that led to the deaths of 12 workers last year at the Sago Mine.UMW officials blasted two previous state reports that blamed lightning, saying they were “disingenuous” and based only on circumstantial evidence.Union safety officers believe roof conditions inside Sago’s old “2 Left” section worsened after a series of roof falls forced the sealing in late 2005 of the area where the Jan. 2, 2006, explosion eventually occurred.“Based on the facts of the investigation, the United Mine Workers of America finds that the most likely cause of the explosion was frictional activity from the roof, roof support or support material igniting the methane-air mixture,” the UMW report concluded.UMW President Cecil Roberts urged reporters not to focus too much on the union’s conclusions about what caused the explosion.Instead, Roberts said, the public should hear more about safety short cuts taken by International Coal Group, lax enforcement by federal regulators, and about the string of other problems that left the Sago miners trapped underground for far too long.“Those 12 men did not have to die,” Roberts said in a cover letter to the union’s report. “But they did, as a result of a series of decisions that were made by the mine’s owner, and allowed by the state and federal agencies that are charged with mine safety.”For example, the UMW report said, ICG officials sought and received permission from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to “second mine” seams inside the 2 Left section before sealing it.In this rare practice, also called “bottom mining,” mine operators remove coal from seams beneath the original mine floor.MSHA approved the practice at the Sago Mine, despite expressing serious concerns that increasing the mine tunnel heights would create more dangers of roof falls by putting more pressure on roof supports.In addition, investigators believe that bottom mining greatly increased the force of the explosion by allowing more methane to accumulate in the sealed area and creating ramps that allowed blast forces to “pile” up as they approached the 2 Left seals.
UMW investigators also revealed that ICG sought and received MSHA approval for a ventilation change that allowed fresh air to course past the sealed area. As part of this setup, the fresh air tunnel was separated from a dirty, or return, air tunnel only by one plastic partition.When the explosion blew out the seals, it also destroyed this partition. Toxic air was then pushed from the blast area back toward where the trapped miners were barricaded.In a 124-page report, UMW officials argued that post-Sago reforms mandated by Congress have not gone far enough.Among other things, the union called for tougher regulation of mine seals and new mandates for in-house mine rescue teams. The union report also recommended random inspections of all self-contained self-rescuers currently in underground mines and urged officials to hasten research to improve SCSR technology.The UMW report also called for a ban on former coal company officials holding “the highest offices” at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.UMW experts said MSHA has “routinely ignored the wishes of Congress” with exemptions to safety rules and by delaying or ignoring its authority to require new and better rescue equipment, such as communications systems, miner locators, and rescue chambers.
“You’re either going to mine coal safely or you’re going to leave it in the ground,” said UMW Secretary-Treasurer Daniel J. Kane.
UMW officials released the report late Thursday morning during a news conference on Capitol Hill. They were joined by some family members of Sago miners and by various lawmakers, including Sen. Robert C. Byrd, W.Va., who promised more legislative mine safety reforms.“Together, we can — and we will — protect the lives and the health of our coal miners,” Byrd said.Ben Hatfield, president of ICG, called the UMW’s report “nothing more than political grandstanding.“The report is wholly unreliable as an investigatory finding and is designed solely to further the union’s political and organizing agenda,” Hatfield said.Sago is a non-union mine, but the UMW took part in the official government probe as a representative of several of the operation’s miners, as allowed under federal mine safety law.In a prepared statement, Richard Stickler, assistant labor secretary in charge of MSHA, said his agency’s investigation “is ongoing, and we will take appropriate actions based on our findings.”The union report’s key finding was that UMW investigators believe a roof collapse or fall of roof rocks ignited methane inside a sealed area of the mine, kicking off a huge explosion at about 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 2, 2006.One miner is believed to have been killed by the blast. Twelve others became trapped by smoke and debris, and all but one of them died of carbon monoxide poisoning before rescuers reached them more than 40 hours later.Already, investigations by the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training and by Davitt McAteer, Gov. Joe Manchin’s special investigator, pointed to lightning as the likely ignition source for the blast.Union officials dismissed those conclusions, saying there “is not evidence to support such a finding, based on the investigation and additional data the union has analyzed.“Circumstantial evidence, such as timing of lightning strikes and the approximate onset of the explosion, offer no conclusive indication, let alone solid evidence, that the two events are related,” the UMW report said.UMW investigators reviewed information about nearly 2,300 ignitions in underground coal mines, and reports of a series of lightning-induced explosions in the 1990s at mines in West Virginia and Alabama.The UMW report said those lightning explosions were different from Sago, because in each case officials found some conduit that carried the charge into the underground workings.At Sago, state investigators and ICG officials have so far been unable to explain exactly how the lightning made its way underground to ignite the methane.UMW officials said it was “disingenuous” of McAteer to compare those other explosions to Sago because they “do not reflect the circumstances” at Sago.The UMW said neither ICG nor state investigators have “cited one example where lightning entered a sealed area of the mine without a direct conduit from the surface to the sealed area. In addition, the union is unaware of any investigative report by MSHA that offers any such evidence.”As for its finding that roof conditions caused the explosion, the UMW offered no specific proof, instead outlining circumstantial evidence about Sago’s roof conditions.“These roof conditions would have continued to present an even greater hazard once the area was sealed,” the report said. “Shifting of the roof strata and roof falls often create friction and sparking as the materials rub together or become dislodged and strike other materials as they fall.”UMW investigators said the problem can be “further compounded by the metal roof bolts, plates, straps and other materials — including oil and hydraulic cans, cables, equipment and other supplies left behind.“These situations can create sparking which can ignite methane if an area has not been inerted,” the UMW report said.In its report, the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training mapped roof falls in the sealed area. State investigators found only one that was in the general area where the explosion is believed to have started, but state investigators said the blast started farther to the southeast, ruling out that roof fall as an ignition source.To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.