There are at least four natural gas wells in close proximity to the Sago Mine, including one that appears to be adjacent to the sealed area of the mine where last week’s explosion is believed to have occurred, according to newly disclosed state mine permit records.The wells are depicted on a Sago Mine map on file with the mine’s permit and mining plan records at the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training in Fairmont.Three of the wells are actively producing gas, but the fourth has not reported production since 1988, according to state Department of Environmental Protection records.An exact cause of the Jan. 2 disaster may not be known for months, but information about the location of the gas wells adds to the evidence being assembled and examined by teams of state mine safety investigators.
Natural gas contains about 70 percent to 90 percent methane, an explosive gas responsible for many coal mine disasters.At Sago, natural gas could have leaked from the nearby wells’ steel pipes, or seeped into abandoned mine workings that were sealed off from the working mine sections, members of the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety said during an emergency meeting Thursday morning.One theory is that a lightning strike could have ignited that gas. Other potential ignition sources include roof falls or abandoned equipment in the mined-out area. In any of these cases, there are steps that mine operators can and are required to take to prevent such explosions, according to various mine safety experts.On Thursday, C.A. Phillips, deputy director of Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, told the board, “There are gas wells in the area. Some of the gas is sent up to Philadelphia and New York.“The gas [inside the mine] could have been gas from these wells. ... There is a lot of investigative work to be done,” Phillips said.Phillips said the board and other investigators “need to get those boreholes down there [inside the mine] before we can learn more.”On Wednesday, state mine safety officials allowed a Gazette reporter to review — but not copy — an updated map of the Sago Mine from the operation’s permit files in Fairmont.The map shows more than a dozen oil and gas wells scattered in the general area of the mine, south of Buckhannon.One of those, owned by Eastern American Energy, is an active well that is located adjacent to the sealed area of the mine, according to the map.Two other active wells, one owned by Eastern American and another by Dominion Exploration and Production, are also in the immediate vicinity of the mine. A fourth well, listed as not producing since 1988, is owned by Ross & Wharton Gas Co., a firm co-owned by former state Sen. Mike Ross.It was not immediately clear Thursday how deep the wells were compared to the location beneath the surface of the Sago Mine tunnels.
Earlier in the week, DEP officials had said that they reviewed Sago Mine maps and found no active oil or gas wells in the vicinity of the mine. Agency spokeswoman Jessica Greathouse said that DEP officials were still reviewing maps and permit documents to determine the potential location of any abandoned or plugged wells near the Sago Mine.But asked about the mine safety office maps on Thursday, DEP officials confirmed that at least three of the four appear to be active operations.James Martin, chief of the DEP Office of Oil and Gas, said that the Ross & Wharton well is also listed as active, but “is listed as abandoned, having no production reported.”During its meeting Thursday, the mine safety board also discussed the availability and deployment of mine rescue teams at the Sago mine after the explosion early that morning.The board’s investigation will also look at whether the trapped miners might have survived if they had tried another way of escaping.Throughout the meeting, Phillips and the board members were very careful in saying they were only discussing possible causes of the tragedy. Only a lengthy investigation might be able to reveal what actually happened.
Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association and a member of the board, said, “We will do an independent review of what happened.“Perhaps we need new technologies. Perhaps we need changes in state law governing the mining and extraction of coal,” Hamilton said. “This could change the way we develop resources in the future. ...“There has been excellent press coverage of this so far. Our process needs to be completely free and open to the public,” Hamilton added.The state board plans to work with the state Legislature, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and a committee headed by former MSHA chief Davitt McAteer.The state board’s other members are: Doug Conaway, head of the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training; Rick Glover, a retired coal miner and United Mine Workers official; Chuck Boggs, a Charleston businessman; Dave Ashby, a safety manager for Peabody Coal; Carl Egnor, a retired miner; and Steve Cook, a former state delegate and senator.During the meeting, Phillips offered a detailed account of what happened after the mine explosion early that morning.Phillips also spoke about the “breakdown in communications” between mine rescue workers that led people outside to believe 12 miners were still alive at 11:46 p.m. on Tuesday evening. That error was corrected about 45 minutes later but not relayed to the public until hours later.Phillips also discussed in detail how rescue teams arrived at the mine and worked to find the trapped miners. Fifteen different rescue teams came to the mine, nine of them from Consolidation Coal operations.The state board, created in 1977, is responsible for revising existing health and safety standards for West Virginia’s coal mines and for issuing new regulations if they are needed to improve safety.To contact staff writers Paul J. Nyden and Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-5164 or 348-1702.