Five days before the Sago Mine disaster, company officials found increasing levels of methane in and around a sealed area of the mine where the Jan. 2 explosion is believed to have occurred, federal and state investigators have learned.
At least two Sago Mine officials testified about the discovery during closed-door hearings over the past three months, according to previously confidential interview transcripts obtained by the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
The methane concentrations were not yet high enough to be ignited, and the general industry practice is to ignore mine areas that have been sealed. Mine safety experts now say the Sago test results appear to have been a warning that — if heeded — might have helped prevent West Virginia’s worst mining disaster in nearly 40 years.
Sago officials dismissed the methane sampling, and took no preventative steps.
“Whatever’s behind the seals is behind the seals,” Sago foreman Carl Crumrine told investigators during a Feb. 16 interview in Clarksburg. “What’s in front of the seals is what I have to worry about.”
The methane findings are among the new details about the Sago disaster contained in thousands of pages of transcripts of investigation interviews.
Federal and state investigators questioned 70 people over the past three months in closed-door interviews at the federal building in Clarksburg and a hotel in Bridgeport.
Late last week, interim state mine safety director James M. Dean released four of the transcripts — the first four interviews, in which International Coal Group officials sat in — in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
Dean declined to comment on the transcripts. U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials also have refused to discuss details of their investigation.
Earlier last week, boxes containing printouts of the transcripts were delivered to families of each of the Sago Mine victims. The Gazette-Mail has obtained a complete set of the transcripts, and posted the documents on its Web site (www.wvgazette.com/static/sago)
Twelve miners died and a 13th was critically injured after an explosion ripped through the International Coal Group mine south of Buckhannon, Upshur County, early on the morning of Jan. 2. One miner is believed to have been killed by the blast itself. Eleven others were dead by the time rescuers reached them more than 40 hours later. The lone survivor, Randal McCloy Jr., returned home this month and continues what doctors say is a miraculous recovery from severe carbon monoxide poisoning.
In the investigation interviews, miners from a crew that escaped the mine just after the explosion described what they heard, saw and felt when the blast occurred.
“There was no warning, no nothing,” testified Owen Jones, a foreman on the crew that escaped. “I mean, more wind and dust than you could even think about.”
Another miner, Ronald Grall, told investigators, “I didn’t hear anything but a little bump, like a thump. And all this stuff started blowing down on us — coal dust, soot, ash, mud. It was just like volcano stuff, you know. It was just like being in a volcano.
“And I thought we was getting covered up with a roof fall at first,” Grall said. “And that scared me more than being in an explosion. I said, ‘Oh, no. I’m going to get covered up in a mantrip, buried alive here.’”
Mine managers testified about their failed efforts at an initial rescue, after reaching the turnoff from the main entry into the 2 Left area, where the trapped miners were scheduled to be working.
Al Schoonover, the mine safety director, said smoke and soot were swirling around, but appeared to be drifting deeper into the mine, toward the 2 Left area.
Schoonover and Jeff Toler, the Sago Mine superintendent, feared that their efforts to repair mine ventilation systems might be making things worse for the trapped miners — including Toler’s uncle, Martin Toler.
“And the discussion got to the point that, you know, if there is — if there is something in here that could still ... the potential to still explode, we may be pushing fresh air over top of a possible explosion and creating another explosion,” Toler said during a Jan. 18 interview.
In their investigation, federal and state agents have narrowed their focus to examining the seals used to block off a mined-out area where Sago management had dealt with repeated roof falls and water leaks.
Mine operators frequently seal off mined-out or otherwise abandoned areas of underground mines. One 2005 report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health cited 35,000 underground mine seals having been installed in recent years.
Typically, methane builds up to high levels in these “gob” areas. Generally, methane is explosive when it is within 5 percent to 15 percent of the surrounding air. Above 15 percent, it will not explode because there is not enough oxygen present to make it flammable.
Coal operators consider it safer to seal off these areas. But it also is cheaper to seal them. If they are not sealed, operators must continue to perform periodic safety checks and walkthroughs.
Federal law requires these abandoned areas to be “isolated from the active workings of the mine with explosion-proof seals or bulkheads.”
Under regulations adopted by MSHA in 1992, all sealed areas must include a sampling pipe or pipes. The pipes must extend at least 15 feet into the sealed area, and be equipped with a cap or shut-valve, the rules state.
In adopting that requirement, MSHA said the pipes are needed to allow “sealed areas [to] be sampled.”
“Excessive levels of methane or other gases behind seals could indicate that the operator needs to take corrective measures,” MSHA said in a Federal Register notice published in May 1992.
At Sago, company mine examiner John Nelson Boni testified in a Jan. 19 interview that he inspected the seals during a visit to the mine on Dec. 28, the Wednesday before the explosion.
Boni said he had never before detected methane when testing with a handheld sampler held close to the seal wall. But during that inspection, Boni said, he picked up 0.2 percent methane. Because of that result, Boni also took a sample from the tube that was installed to allow testing of the area behind the seals. That test picked up 1.2 percent methane, Boni testified.
“I didn’t record that in the book, because I only record what I had on the outside of the seals,” Boni testified.
Boni said he told mine foreman Carl Crumrine about the results.
“I told him that there’s nothing to be alarmed about, but I just want you to know,” Boni said.
In a Feb. 16 interview, Crumrine testified that he checked for methane outside the sealed area again the day after Boni’s inspection, on Dec. 29. Crumrine said he did not check the tube to sample methane behind the seals.
“The only thing that meant to me was that ... what was supposed to happen behind the seals was happening,” Crumrine said. “It was supposed to build up with methane or become inert — inert behind the seals.”
Joe Main, retired safety director for the United Mine Workers union, said federal regulations require the sampling tube so that operators will check behind seals and take precautions if they find methane building up or staying within the explosive range.
“Either you test for it to mean something, or you don’t have these taps back into them,” Main said last week. “They’re there for a purpose, so why aren’t we using some due diligence?”
Late last year, Sago Mine managers sought and received approval to seal this part of their mine using Omega Blocks, a lightweight, hard-foam alternative to concrete blocks. Some mine operators prefer the lighter alternatives because they can be installed more quickly, using fewer workers.
John Collins, a state inspector, reviewed the Sago Mine seals on Dec. 12, and concluded that they were properly constructed, according to state inspection records previously made public.
In his interview with investigators, Collins said that, at the time of his inspection, Sago workers had not applied “rock dust,” a material used to suppress explosions, in the area immediately outside the seals.
John Mehaulic Jr., an MSHA inspector, examined the seals during a visit to the Sago Mine on Dec. 21, according to a transcript of his March 27 interview with investigators.
“I did not detect any methane, did not see any oxygen deficiencies,” Mehaulic testified. “And the seals were complete, as far as I could see from this side of them. They were done according to the plan.”
Marty Carver, another MSHA inspector, said he found at least one problem during construction of the seals. With inspectors watching, workers laid blocks in a line with the joints parallel to each other, a mistake that violated the seal plan and would make the seals weaker, Carver said.
“...So we took the time out, we pulled the plan out and we reviewed the plan for about 30 minutes,” Carver said. “At the end of it, they removed the block, cut part of the block off, re-mortared and repositioned so the joints were not parallel to each other.”
Carver also testified that the workers were not coating the blocks with water, as required by the company’s approved plan for the seals.
Another MSHA inspector, Roger Workman, said it is difficult for inspectors to know for sure if the seals are installed properly.
“The only way we can really say a seal is built correctly, we’d have to be there when they start and watch them do the whole thing,” Workman said. “I mean, once you plaster that wall, you can’t see the joints. And then, if you don’t watch them do the top — I mean, how do I know whether they wedged it good and tight around there?”
In another interview, Sago Mine contractor James Scott testified that he was in charge of building the seals. Scott, an employee of Garrett Mine Services, said in a Jan. 25 interview that he had never before built seals using Omega Blocks. At Sago, Scott testified, his primary work crew included two so-called red hats, or inexperienced miners.
In Monday’s Charleston Gazette: Coded language used in the Sago rescue attempt might have led to false reports of mine survivors.
Staff writer Ken Ward Jr.’s continued reporting on mine safety and the Sago Mine disaster is being supported by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation.
To contact Ward, use e-mail or call 348-1702.