Sago blast cause might never be known
A report expected next month will not pinpoint the exact cause of the January explosion that killed 12 workers at the Sago Mine, West Virginia’s lead investigator said Thursday.
Davitt McAteer, a special assistant to Gov. Joe Manchin, said it is entirely possible that investigators might never identify precisely what ignited the blast.
“We’re continuing to try to turn over stones to find answers,” McAteer said during an industry meeting in Charleston.
In about three weeks, McAteer is scheduled to release his report on the Jan. 2 Sago Mine disaster. The release is set for July 19, with family members of Sago victims, Manchin and lawmakers scheduled to receive the report before the general public and the media.
McAteer said the report will outline the evidence collected to date, but that investigators have not yet determined what ignited a buildup of methane gas in a sealed area of the Upshur County mine.
“It would be nice to have the final, proximate cause — to say, ‘Here’s how it happened,’” McAteer said in an interview. “I don’t know if we will.
“We’ve got a lot of facts here, but it’s time to put them together.”
McAteer said it would not be unusual for investigators to be unable to isolate the cause of the explosion. In numerous major mine explosions over the years, inspectors have been able to narrow the causes to a list of potential ignition sources, and have listed those in their final reports.
McAteer said that not being able to pinpoint the exact cause would not mean investigators wouldn’t have a list of reforms that could help prevent similar future accidents.
“You have to step back and say what do we know and what can we do about it,” McAteer said.
Twelve miners died because of the Sago explosion, making it the worst coal-mining disaster in West Virginia in nearly 40 years.
One worker was killed by the blast itself, and 11 others succumbed underground to carbon-monoxide poisoning before rescue workers reached them more than 40 hours later. One miner, Randal McCloy, survived and is continuing what his doctors call a miraculous recovery.
Mine owner International Coal Group blames the explosion on lightning, but government investigators say they have yet to figure out how lightning would have made its way from a tree off mine property to deep underground at the sealed area.
The Sago disaster, along with the Jan. 19 fire at the Aracoma Mine in Logan County and the deaths of five miners at the Darby Mine in Kentucky, have prompted new interest in mine safety and a push for regulatory reforms.
McAteer appeared briefly Thursday afternoon at a meeting set up by the Coal Forum, a mostly industry group that also works with the United Mine Workers union.
Initially, a state consultant had issued a news release saying that McAteer would release his final report — which was due to Manchin by July 1 — at Thursday’s Coal Forum event. A few days later, McAteer announced that was not the case, and said he had asked Manchin for an extension until July 19.
Neither Manchin nor Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., appeared in person at Thursday’s event, although both were listed on the agenda. Officials from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration also did not attend, although they were scheduled to brief the group on new federal mine-safety regulations initiated since the Sago disaster.
Thursday’s event was the first time McAteer has briefed the public on the Sago investigation since the close of a public hearing in early May. In his presentation, McAteer challenged coal operators to find ways to fit new communications systems and other safety technology — many now mandated by state or federal law — into their mines.
In West Virginia, McAteer said, about 150 underground mines need to comply with the new rules. About 45 mines in Pennsylvania must comply, and a smaller number in Ohio, he said.
“It’s a manageable number that we’re talking about,” McAteer said. “The solution for the mines is going to come mine by mine. I don’t know that there is going to be a silver bullet out there.
“How would we do it right? That’s the challenge for us to look at at each mine.”
Staff writer Ken Ward Jr.’s continued coverage of 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.