Last week, coal industry officials were pleased. The year was ending with a record low number of mining deaths.Nationally, 22 coal miners died on the job in 2005, down from the previous record of 27 in 2002. In West Virginia, the industry recorded a remarkable three fatal accidents, half the previous low of six, recorded three years ago.At about 6:30 Monday morning, any joy over the industry’s safety performance was shattered. An explosion roared through a small, newly reopened underground mine south of Buckhannon.Thirteen miners were trapped in International Coal Group’s Sago Mine.From the 1950s through the late 1970s, coal mine disasters seemed commonplace. During that period, there were 35 accidents that claimed five or more lives, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s definition of a mine “disaster.”As recently as 1978, the first year that MSHA operated under a revised mine safety act, 106 coal miners died on the job across the country.Judging by the numbers, things have improved dramatically.In no year since 1993 have more than 50 coal miners died on the job. Since 1976, there have been 15 coal mine disasters, half the number during the previous quarter-century.Since 2000, the mining industry as a whole — coal and metal/nonmetal — has seen a 34 percent decrease in fatal accidents. Across the country, fatality rates have dropped, from 0.0329 per 200,000 hours worked to 0.0197 per 200,000 hours worked.But, especially in a three-state region of Appalachia, improvements in mine safety continue to lag behind.Over a five-year period through 2004, West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia generated about one-quarter of the nation’s coal. But over that same period, they accounted for more than half of the nation’s coal mining fatalities, according to MSHA.Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers union, said that the region’s safety problems are likely to worsen as the coal market stays good.With coal prices and energy demand high, smaller companies with less resources for safety programs get back into the market. Marginal properties with bad roof conditions or other problems are reopened.“As we see an increase in the industry, which we support, we hope we don’t lose the focus on how dangerous this business is,” Roberts said.Roberts says the biggest concern is a change in focus by the Bush administration from tough mine safety enforcement to “compliance assistance” programs.“I think over the last couple of years, there has been a philosophy that mines are safer, the number of fatalities are down, so we don’t need all of the enforcement we advocate,” Roberts said.Over the last four years, there have been repeated signs that MSHA is having problems:s After the Jim Walters No. 5 disaster in Alabama in September 2001, an internal review found that MSHA inspectors did not make sure safety violations were fixed. The review also found that MSHA allowed major ventilation plan changes at the time without reviewing them appropriately.s In October 2003, a U.S. General Accounting Office review found that problems like those at Jim Walters were widespread at MSHA offices around the country.s After a January 2003 explosion killed three workers at a CONSOL Energy mine near Moundsville, MSHA’s lead investigator said that the agency had not inspected the site as frequently as required by law.s After a June 2003 fatality at Cody Mining in Kentucky, then-MSHA chief Dave Lauriski — a longtime coal company official — found “unexcused deficiencies” on the part of agency inspectors charged with overseeing the mine. MSHA has refused to explain these deficiencies.Top MSHA officials in Washington, D.C., including acting agency chief David Dye, declined to be interviewed for this story. MSHA officials are running the Sago Mine rescue operation, but not taking part in any of the public briefings.In an e-mailed response to questions late Tuesday night, agency spokesman David James wrote, “MSHA’s focus has been on mission critical rescue efforts since yesterday morning. I would point out that despite yesterday’s tragedy, MSHA has achieved higher enforcement results during this Administration, and mining fatalities and injuries have consistently declined.”In a recent speech, Dye noted, “For four years in a row, mining fatalities have declined, to the record low level of 55 in 2004.“The simple fact is that today there are fewer incidents of injuries and fewer fatalities in mining than ever before,” Dye said. “Let me repeat that astonishing accomplishment: in 2004, for the fourth year in a row, the mining industry achieved its safest year on record — the safest four years in all recorded mining history in the United States.”But, Dye added, MSHA is “not resting on our laurels.”“While the number of fatalities has been dropping steadily, the rate of decline has slowed,” he said. “We must redouble our efforts to drive those numbers to zero.”To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.