Sago seal citations likely
State regulators plan to cite the Sago Mine’s operator for improper construction of seals that failed to contain the explosion last January that killed 12 workers, a mine safety inspector revealed Wednesday.
Investigators, however, don’t believe the seal construction problems contributed to the Sago disaster and are still far from a conclusive answer to how lightning may have ignited the deadly blast.
“It seems prudent, before we take drastic steps, to better understand what we’re dealing with,” said Monte Hieb, the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training’s chief engineer and one of the agency’s lead Sago investigators.
Investigators also revealed Wednesday that Sago survivor Randal McCloy Jr. is believed to be the only one of the 12 miners huddled behind a makeshift barricade who was alive 10 hours after the 6:30 a.m. explosion.
In their first public presentation, state investigators said that conclusion was reached by the state medical examiner.
If true, that finding could mean the other miners died of carbon monoxide poisoning before the first rescue team entered the mine at 5:25 p.m. Jan. 2, 2006. The timing would also match fairly closely with what may have been the last note written by one of the miners.
The medical examiner’s findings were among the new details to emerge publicly in a briefing that officials say mirrored a private report to Sago victims’ families last month.
Members of the mine safety office’s investigation team delivered the briefing in an all-day meeting Wednesday with the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety.
Under state law, the mine safety office inspects coal mines, enforces safety rules and investigates accidents. The safety board writes the state’s mine safety and health rules.
At International Coal Group’s Sago Mine, fireboss Terry Helms was killed by the Jan. 2 explosion. One crew of workers escaped, but 12 others became trapped. Only McCloy was alive when rescuers reached them 40 hours later.
In its report on the disaster, the state office concluded that a lightning strike likely ignited methane that had built up in a sealed area of the Upshur County mine.
Investigators said Wednesday that they are looking closely at whether a maze of oil and gas lines on the surface somehow acted as an “antenna” for a lightning charge.
State officials are also interested in a water pump cable found near the spot where investigators believe the methane ignition occurred.
Investigators also are looking at other possible connections to the lightning, but declined to offer specifics.
“We’re examining some things on the surface that we’re not really ready to talk about yet,” Hieb said.
Board member Ted Hapney, a United Mine Workers lobbyist, suggested that state investigators had focused on lightning too early in their probe.
He cited a Jan. 12, 2006, memo that said the timing of lightning strikes near the time of the explosion was “convincing evidence” of a “direct relationship” between the two.
“That was [written] before anybody actually went underground,” Hapney said during Wednesday’s meeting.
In their report, state investigators found that ICG did not follow its approved plan for using lightweight Omega Blocks to seal off the area where the explosion eventually occurred. Among other things, the seals involved the incorrect mortar application, the wrong number of header boards and differing widths.
During a press conference, state inspector supervisor Brian Mills said that the agency was waiting on a federal test of the seals before deciding on any citations for these problems.
John Collins, the state inspector who monitored the Sago Mine, said a citation would be written.
“It is my understanding that we are going to issue a citation on that, but it’s going to be a noncontributory violation,” Collins said.
Collins said he should have noticed some of the problems before he signed off on the completed seals, but that violations of the approved seal plan were less important than the overall problems with Omega Block seals.
“We know that we need a better seal,” Collins said. “Whether we agree on what ignited that methane behind that seal, we all know it ignited. If we had a seal that would hold it, then the drilling and the response and the rescuers wouldn’t matter.”
Randall Harris, a consultant to the state mine safety office, said investigators would not answer a question about whether any oversights by ICG contributed to the disaster.
“It would be inappropriate to answer that question, given the litigation and all the things that are going on,” Harris said.
John Scott, a state electrical inspector, said he found no evidence of electrical system problems — including missing lightning protections on a mine phone system and battery charging station — contributing to the explosion.
Scott said, however, that the state has no jurisdiction over more than 3 miles of high-voltage power lines that ICG maintains into the mine.
Scott also said the state has no rules to govern the carbon monoxide monitoring system meant to warn miners of fires and explosions underground.
“Right now, we don’t have anything in our law,” Scott said.
Chuck Boggs, a mine safety board member, said the state needs to consider rules on the “bottom mining” of the sealed-area floor that apparently helped increase the explosive forces that hit the Omega Block seals.
“It seems to me that you’re putting it all at the end of a funnel,” Boggs said. “It just accelerates the force.”
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.