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2006-01-05

Were the Deaths of the 12 Coal Miners Preventable? A Look At the History of Safety Violations at the Sago Mine

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Last year, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration filed 200 alleged violations against the Sago mine. 46 citations were issued in the past three months–18 of them were considered "serious and substantial." We speak with investigative reporter Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette (WV) who closely monitors the mining industry. [includes rush transcript]

Yesterday morning, 12 of the 13 coal miners initially thought to have survived a mine explosion at Sago Mines in Central West Virginia, were pronounced dead. The explosion occurred on Monday morning in a sealed section of the mine, and trapped 13 miners 260 feet below the mine"s surface. Their immediate fate was unknown but by Tuesday night company officials announced they had found toxic levels of carbon monoxide in the area where the miners were thought to be. That night West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin acknowledged at a press conference that there was little hope there would be any survivors. Then late Tuesday night, the company that owns the mine, International Coal Group, announced that 12 of the miners had been found alive. Family members and friends who had gathered in a local church heard the news from the rescue command center and celebrated with cheering and singing for almost three hours. Many newspapers on the east coast ran headlines proclaiming the miners to be alive.

Then early Wednesday morning the CEO of ICG, Ben Hatfield, announced that actually only one miner, Randy McCloy, had survived the blast. After the announcement, chaos broke out at the Sago Baptist church and the devastated families grew increasingly angry after it emerged that mine officials had known within 45 minutes that original reports of the miners" survival might have been false, but they had waited to tell the families. A fight broke out inside the church and a mining company official had to be escorted away under police protection. These are family members speaking to reporters yesterday after they heard the news.

  • Family members react to mine deaths

Also on Wednesday, the CEO of the International Coal Group, Ben Hatfield, gave a press conference and expressed regret that the families of the 12 dead miners were mistakenly led to believe for three hours that their loved ones were alive. He also tried to explain why the miscommunication happened.

  • Ben Hatfield, the CEO of the International Coal Group

Monday’s explosion at Sago mine is the state"s deadliest mining accident since 1968. Seventy-eight men, including the uncle of the current governor, died in that disaster. The tragedy propelled Congress to pass the historic Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.

The deaths of the 12 miners this week at Sago mine highlighted ongoing safety problems. Last year alone Sago mine was cited for over 200 health and safety violations. Inspectors found 16 violations in the past 8 months that were listed as "unwarrantable failures."

Sago mine was forced to suspend operations 16 times in 2005 after failing to comply with safety rules. The violations found at Sago included mine roofs that collapsed without warning, faulty tunnel supports and a dangerous build-up of flammable coal dust. But the fines that the company were required to pay were extremely low, most of them $250 or $60 dollars.

Government documents also show a high rate of accidents at Sago. 42 workers and contractors have been injured in accidents since 2000 and the average number of working days lost because of accidents in the past five years was nearly double the national average for underground coal mines.

We are joined now by Ken Ward Jr., staff writer for West Virginia"s Charleston Gazette and investigative reporter who wrote an award-winning series of articles about coal-industry abuses in West Virginia, revealing that state regulators routinely ignore the law when they issue mountaintop removal permits. He continues to cover industry abuses for the Gazette.

We also invited ICG to be on the program but they did not return our calls.

  • Ken Ward, staff writer for the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. He wrote an award-winning series of articles for the paper about coal-industry abuses in West Virginia, revealing that state regulators routinely ignore the law when they issue mountaintop removal permits.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: These are family members speaking to reporters yesterday after they heard the news.

FAMILY MEMBER 1: First they said that they had found them in the shaft, in the shaft L2, behind a wall that they built with lumber that was in the mine and they were safe. They were communicating with them. They were pecking on them and talking to them. And they was bringing them out.

REPORTER: Who said this?

FAMILY MEMBER 1: Mine officials.

FAMILY MEMBER 2: No.

REPORTER: Do you think it was intentional?

FAMILY MEMBER 2: It was intentional, because they didn’t know what they were doing. They got their wires crossed, you know? They were supposed to be briefing us every hour.

FAMILY MEMBER 1: Why did they take two-and-a-half hours to call 9/11, from the time it started?

FAMILY MEMBER 2: From the time the explosion started.

REPORTER: Did you guys have a sense as the night went on that something was going on here?

FAMILY MEMBER 1: They told us they were alive.

FAMILY MEMBER 2: They were checking them out to make sure they was all right. They was bringing them back up here, so they can have food before they go to the hospital. And then, the cops showed up there. We thought it was our family coming out. And our family ain’t there. Our family is dead because they lied to us.

FAMILY MEMBER 3: That’s right.

FAMILY MEMBER 1: Because they took too long.

AMY GOODMAN: Also on Wednesday, the C.E.O. of the International Coal Group, Ben Hatfield, gave a news conference and expressed regret the families of the 12 dead miners were mistakenly led to believe for almost three hours their loved ones were alive. He also tried to explain why the miscommunication happened.

BEN HATFIELD: Because we had one clear communication that said 12 were alive, followed 45 minutes later or so — I forget the time frame — by another communication that said only 11 were alive. We were just as suspicious of the second communication as the first. We didn’t know which one was right. Certainly, when people have been in a barricade for a period of time, there’s high risk that some of them may be in a comatose kind of state where the vital signs may be difficult to confirm. So there was a lot of legitimate basis to continue being optimistic.

So, at that point, we did regroup with the command center and tried to relay word through the state police to get information to the church that there’s confusion on the information. We don’t really know what the situation is. We’re waiting to debrief the mine rescue team. That communication clearly did not get carried through very well, and that, we deeply regret.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Hatfield, the C.E.O. of International Coal Group, the company that owns Sago Mine. Monday’s explosion at Sago Mine is the state’s deadliest mining accident since 1968. 78 men, including the uncle of the current governor, died in that disaster. The tragedy propelled Congress to pass the historic Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.

The deaths of the 12 miners this week at Sago Mine highlight ongoing safety problems. Last year alone, Sago Mine was cited for over 200 health and safety violations. Inspectors found 16 violations in the past eight months that were listed as unwarrantable failures. Sago Mine was forced to suspend operations 16 times in 2005, after failing to comply with safety rules. The violations found that Sago included mine roofs that collapsed without warning, faulty tunnel supports and a dangerous buildup of flammable coal dust.

But the fines that the company were required to pay were extremely low, most of them $250 or $60. Government documents also show a high rate of accidents at Sago. 42 workers and contractors have been injured in accidents since 2000. The average number of working days lost because of accidents in the past five years was nearly double the national average for underground coal mines.

We’re joined on the phone now by Ken Ward, Jr., an investigative reporter who wrote an award-winning series of articles for the Charleston Gazette about coal industry abuses in West Virginia, revealing state regulators routinely ignore the law when they issue mountaintop removal permits. His series in the Charleston Gazette began in 1998. We also invited I.C.G., the International Coal Group, to be on the program, but they didn’t return our calls. Ken Ward, welcome to Democracy Now!

KEN WARD: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you’ve been involved with covering this disaster, as well as disasters before. Can you lay out the safety record of the Sago Mine?

KEN WARD: Well, your all’s introduction included some of the numbers that have been fairly widely reported by the media thus far. And it’s clear from those numbers that we had a mine here that had a lot of problems. They had had at least a dozen roof falls in the last six months. They had had accumulations of combustible material. Gene kits, a former Massey Energy official who is one of the main people running I.C.G. right now, said at one of their press conferences that, well if these violations were so bad, then regulators would have shut us down. And, in fact, as your introduction said, on numerous occasions MSHA inspectors used their authority to temporarily shut down parts of that mine, because of serious safety problems.

You know, kind of the best scenario for I.C.G. here is they bought an operation that had some serious safety problems, and they came in and they have said — they have said this — they came in, intending to try to fix those. Obviously, they didn’t move fast enough to do that, if that, indeed, is the case.

There’s some question as to the current management and at what period of time they actually started playing a very active role in the mine management. They announced their purchase of this property in March of last year and finalized that purchase on November 18. But there’s certainly some clear indication that at some point between those two dates, the current management was playing a role in what was going on at that mine. This was clearly an operation that had problems that needed more attention from regulators and more attention from the mine management to avoid exactly the sort of tragedy that happened on Monday.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Ken Ward, one of the things that you’ve reported also has been the amazing lack of involvement of federal mining regulation officials, MSHA officials, in providing information to the public, that this was largely handled by the mine owners themselves. And in most tragedies of this type, whether it’s airline accidents or other major tragedies, it’s the regulatory agencies that take over a lot of the public information. Could you talk about that a little bit?

KEN WARD: Sure. I should preface it by saying that I have personally been working out of my newspaper’s office in Charleston, working the phones, some computer databases, looking through files. And so, I have not personally attended the briefings or been at the site. But I’ve watched the briefings and talked to our reporters, numerous ones who have been on site.

But it’s a rather startling thing that’s happening, that all of the information is being disseminated by the company, and one of our reporters, Scott Finn, asked about this at a press conference yesterday, and said, you know, "Who’s in charge of relaying information here?" And the company said, "Well, we’re in charge." And that’s clearly not the expectation under the Mine Safety and Health Act. When something like this happens at a mine, a serious accident, where there are conditions that could cause further injuries to people, what happens is MSHA inspectors get there, and they issue what’s called a "K-order," which gives them control of the site. And nothing can happen at that site without MSHA approval. And one of the things that historically MSHA has always done is played a very active role, if not the role, in disseminating information.

Everyone recalls the Quecreek near disaster in July of 2002. And Mine Safety and Health Administration experts and state mine safety experts in Pennsylvania took a very active role. The governor of Pennsylvania, then Mark Schweiker, kind of ran some of those press conferences, but he had the technical people there with him to answer questions.

The only faces the public and the press are seeing here are company officials, and it’s just shocking as to why that is, because the Labor Department, of which MSHA is a part, has at least two, and perhaps more, public affairs employees at the mine site with satellite phones and all sorts of ability to communicate. But they haven’t had any briefings. They haven’t answered any questions. I personally asked MSHA to obtain for my newspaper from its files on the mine permits, this operation, a copy of the underground map. And I was told by Susie Boner phon., one of their P.R. people, "Well, you’ll have to get that from the company." I mean, it’s just — it’s a shocking thing here.

But it’s really nothing new for this particular administration at MSHA that has had a long history in their time in office of trying to throw stumbling blocks and hurdles at reporters trying to learn about what MSHA’s doing. We had an accident in West Virginia in January of 2003. Some miners near Moundsville, up in our northern panhandle near Pittsburgh, were drilling a new shaft down into CONSOL — to get into CONSOL Energy’s McElroy Mine. The shaft blew up. Three of these workers were killed. And we asked for previous inspection reports from that shaft drilling operation. We filed our FOIA request, our Freedom of Information Act request, the day after the accident in January of 2003. We didn’t get that information until the following December. And, of course, when we got the information it revealed that MSHA had not properly inspected the mine.

It’s really an amazing sort of thing here. MSHA right now is an agency that doesn’t have a permanent director. The director of MSHA is typically an assistant secretary of labor. The last one was a guy named Dave Lauriski, who for 30 years was a mine company employee. President Bush has nominated someone new named Richard Stickler to take that role. There have been no confirmation hearings scheduled for him. Mr. Stickler has a rather questionable sort of past. When he was being nominated to run Pennsylvania’s mine safety agency, the United Mine Workers Union opposed him getting that job, because some of the Bethlehem Steel Mining operations which he managed had poor safety records.

You know, the national media, I think, has done — portions of it have done a very good job of getting at some of the safety record of this operation, but I think the national media is showing its ignorance about mine safety issues, because no one has really — you all are the first one who’s raised the issue with me from the national media about where is MSHA in providing information here. And I’m certainly glad that you all asked about that. And I hope that some of my brethren in the media start asking that same question.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Ken Ward, investigative reporter with the Charleston Gazette. When we come back, we’ll also be joined by a man who has dedicated his life to the safety of miners and the safety of people who live near mines. His name is Jack Spadaro.

[break]

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