INTERNATIONAL Coal Group announced that a lightning strike sparked the Jan. 2 explosion that killed 12 workers and seriously injured another at its Sago Mine in Upshur County.
The company’s conclusion is interesting because no one can say how electricity from the lightning penetrated two miles underground to the gas-filled chamber that exploded. An unusually large lightning strike might have been a factor, but evidence linking a bolt to the blast has not been found, experts say.
Fortunately, investigators for both the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training are more curious than the company. Both agencies continue to gather witness accounts, examine the mine, retrieve equipment and generally try to piece together the puzzle.
There are a number of plausible theories:
s Lightning might have been conducted by water underground to water standing in the mine. From there, the electricity might have traveled through a pump sitting in the water and continued along an electrical cable until it reached the gas.
s But here’s another possibility: There’s an electrical substation nearby. If a surge of power moved through that substation, it could have followed a power line to the mine. From there, it might have traveled into the mine on rails used by mine buggies.
s Or, lightning may not have been involved in the explosion at all.
No one should settle for a convenient conclusion before all the facts are known. Victims of this disaster deserve more consideration. Their families certainly deserve the courtesy of a complete investigation.
In a news release, the company said the investigation continues, but at the same time, President and CEO Ben Hatfield talked as if the matter is resolved. “We are pleased that we can get our Sago employees back to work with the knowledge that the explosion was an unpredictable and highly unusual accident,” he said in the release.
Certainly the explosion was unusual, but it is too soon to conclude that it was unpredictable, and every mine operator and miner has a stake in understanding what happened.
If it happened as the company said, and an unpredictable lightning strike traveled two miles underground, then the entire industry should be nervous. The implication is that mines should be evacuated during all lightning storms. A better solution would be to continue searching for the truth.
Here’s another reason to learn all that is possible from Sago: There are thousands of sealed areas in mines across the country. Several of them have exploded. What is different about these sites? Where are other sites like these?
“If there’s a problem out there for other mines, we’ve got to know about it,” says Davitt McAteer, a former MSHA chief who is Gov. Manchin’s special adviser on this investigation.
The company wants to blame God and go on. Not good enough. Fortunately, MSHA and state mine safety authorities, although blindsided by company’s premature announcement, continue their important work — to search for answers.