Union: Sago miners did not have to die

Standing with the West Virginia congressional delegation and before the family of deceased Sago miner Jim Bennett, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts and Secretary Treasurer Daniel Kane charged, “This tragedy was preventable and should have never occurred.” Directly challenging two state investigations and another by International Coal Group (ICG), owner of the Sago mine where 12 miners died while at work underground in January 2006, the union leaders demanded immediate action to protect the lives of thousands of coal miners, union and nonunion.

“Twelve men are dead today who should not be,” said Roberts. “Their deaths came as a result of a series of bad decisions made by the company and the federal mine safety regulatory agency [the Mine Safety and Health Administration, MSHA].”

Some of these decisions were made in the weeks and months just before the explosion and in the hours immediately after it, Roberts said, while some had been made many years earlier. But “all of these misguided decisions contributed to this tragedy,” he said. “And without immediate action by mine operators and regulatory agencies to reverse the effects of these decisions, more tragedies are inevitable.”

Company and state investigations into the Sago disaster concluded that lightning — an “act of God” — caused the explosion. But the union’s highly skilled investigators found no evidence to support that conclusion.

No metal conduit was present at the mine that could have conducted electricity from a lightning strike into a sealed area, an underground section containing volatile methane gas, said the union’s report. Union investigators said evidence did show as the most likely cause “frictional activity from the mine roof.” Such friction “created an electrical arc underground that ignited an explosive methane-air mixture in the sealed area.”

Miners at Sago are not members of the United Mine Workers union.

According to MSHA records, during the six months before the fatal blast, ICG was cited for 180 safety violations, including 12 roof falls that pointed to structural instability.

Roberts zeroed in on ICG’s operating Sago on the cheap and cutting corners on safety laws, as well as the federal government’s relaxation of standards and the sloppy or nonexistent enforcement of state and federal regulations.

In the 1990s, MSHA changed the 1977 Mine Health and Safety Act to allow coal companies to exchange effective “bulkhead seals” used for sealing off abandoned sections of the mine for “Omega block seals” made of foam and fiber. The Omega block seals used by ICG failed, allowing toxic gases to fill the mine.

“The real problem here is that the will and intent of Congress when it passed the Coal Act in 1969 and the Mine Act in 1977 has been diluted, modified and subverted by MSHA and mine operators to the point where some practices and policies in place today offer miners little more protection than they had before those laws were passed,” Roberts said.

The report calls for action ranging from seals to ventilation, miners’ emergency breathing apparatus, rescue teams and dozens more. On the heels of the UMWA report, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Labor and Education Committee, shot off another letter to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao demanding that coal companies be required to install rescue chambers underground. Many countries, including Canada, require such chambers.

With demands for electricity growing, coal companies are making handsome profits. Through the first week of 2007, miners in northern West Virginia, where Sago is located, extracted nearly a million tons of coal worth $44.3 million, exceeding tonnage and profits in the same area during the record-setting year 2006.

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