The tragic explosion of the Sago Mine in West Virginia on January 2, 2006, which took twelve lives and permanently disabled another, still begs for a rational explanation over 1 year later. The disaster captured the interest of the American public and fostered outrage on the part of lawmakers and bureaucrats alike, while coal programs operators ran for cover.
For not only did the International Coal Group, Inc., which owns and operates the Sago Mine, become the poster-child for unsafe mining practices, it became the source of questions which had not been publicly exposed for decades, while miners’ lives remained in peril.
And questions linger as to why existing federal and state safety laws were overlooked by government agencies and regulations bypassed by the coal industry. Still, there was a knee-jerk reaction for more federal legislation rushed through the halls of Congress and various state houses where new laws were enacted in those mining states which lost miners in 2006.
The direct cause of the Sago Mine explosion has yet to be confirmed by the state of West Virginia, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the United Mine Workers Association (UMWA) and independent commissions with reports supposedly forthcoming. 2006 saw the largest percentage increase in U.S. coal mining deaths in 107 years, the industry’s highest number since 1995, and more than double that of the 22 in 2005. Yet, explanations for such an increase are varied, depending upon which interested party provides them.
This writer wrote an extensive report one year ago regarding background on federal regulation of the mining industry, its lack of government enforcement, the industry’s deregulation over the past several decades and the industry’s accelerated recent growth which are all contributing factors to the decline in mining safety.
And although such may help give a historic context of the dysfunction, it offers no confidence whether or not coal mining is functionally in a better place 1 year after Sago. Heightened awareness of negligence, whether blind or intentional, is the first step to increased improvement, but there are many more required to assure miners and their families that their lives are in less danger and remain a priority.
Preliminary reports by the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training (WVMHST), the International Coal Group, Inc., the MSHA and independent commissioned studies such as the Mine Safety Technology and Training Commission cite contributing factors to the loss of life in Sago Mine.
But without substantial scientific evidence, 3 bolts of lightning strikes remain the official cause for igniting methane gas causing the explosion. And such remains mere speculation and without foundation to mining experts and scientists alike. At issue, is how lightning could travel over two miles and 900 feet underground through twists and turns on its way to a closed-off section where the miners were located and cause the eventual explosion.
Additionally, the underground mine seals used for the walls were manufactured with materials unable to withstand the minimally mandated 20 pounds per square inch (psi). However, the sustained blast of Sago was 95 psi. Engineers are now experimenting with new composites able to handle over 95 psi. To date, there exists no credible material to handle such an explosion although the MSHA amended the requirement for mine seals to be 50 psi in 2006.
It was the loss of life at Sago Mine as well as the two subsequent West Virginia coal mining deaths but weeks after Sago on January 19, 2006 in a fire at Aracoma Mine, followed by the disaster at Darby Mine No. 1 in Harlan County, Kentucky which took 5 more lives on May 20, 2006, that resulted in the expedited federal Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006. President George W. Bush signed it into law on June 15, 2006. And just weeks after the Sago Mine explosion, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin executed new mining laws on January 26, 2006 which followed his order for a special investigation by the state of West Virginia into causes of the Sago disaster.
By February 7, 2006 the WVMHST announced the provisions of its emergency regulations mandated by the legislature. They included providing emergency shelters within 1,000 feet of where miners are digging coal; inspection of air supplies daily and reporting results to the state; installation of caches of emergency air supplies equal to 30 minutes of walking time; wireless communication devices capable of reaching the surface through text, voice and by location.
Similarly, Kentucky passed legislation which became effective July 12, 2006 as it suffered a total loss of 16 miners in 2006. The law includes such changes as requiring mine managers to report a serious injury or fatality to state officials within 15 minutes, requires 2 air packs for each miner and provides for escape drills to be conducted every 90 days. Kentucky also now has the power to fine mine operators for violations and to increase from 2 to 3 the number of underground inspections annually.