Coal miners still await action for safe mines

PITTSBURGH — Mining is a basic industry, not given to fluff or mounds of paper. Despite the history-making call by West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin to halt coal production in the state in the wake of the Jan. 2, 2006, Sago Mine disaster, which took the lives of 12 miners, there are few changes in the mines to protect the men and women who work in them to help keep the lights on.

Eleven months later, with winter’s dry air creating even more hazards, mounds of paper continue to grow with a rash of reports released in past weeks.

The investigation into the disaster at the Sago Mine, which is owned by International Coal Group (ICG), demonstrated that the 12 trapped miners died from prolonged exposure to carbon dioxide. Lone survivor Randall McCloy Jr. testified that four of the self-contained self-rescuers (SCSRs), breathing devices that are supposed to keep miners alive in toxic underground atmospheres until help arrives, did not work. The crew had to share their breathable air.

Just this month, ICG sent at least six miners underground with defective SCSRs at the company’s Wolf Run Mine, near Fairmont, W.Va. State and federal mine agencies have issued a citation against ICG, once again.

Ira Gamm, spokesman for ICG, told the Charleston Gazette that the company expects individual miners to inspect their SCSRs daily. But the company said it would not contest the state citation.

Meanwhile, ICG reported third-quarter gross profits of over $15 million. To date, gross profits for ICG in the current fiscal year total $59.7 million, according to the company.

Imposing fines on mining companies, which coal operators can challenge in court, to enforce strict mine safety laws at the state and federal level is not working, said West Virginia state Mine safety chief Ron Wooten. “I have a feeling about penalties,” he told The Associated Press, a feeling that “civil penalties don’t necessarily work.”

While he did not release details of the state’s new enforcement strategy, the state is preparing to take over inspection and certification of all SCSRs, a task that has until now been left up to federal inspectors.

Another hint of potential change came Nov. 28 when West Virginia pulled the state mining licenses of seven foremen at A.T. Massey’s Alma No. 1 Mine.

“I can tell you that to our knowledge this is the largest number of decertifications that the office has recommended,” Caryn Gresham, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Health, Safety and Training, told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

Basically, the state of West Virginia permanently fired four bosses from ever working in the state’s mines, and temporarily suspended three others.

The unprecedented state action followed a report on the deadly fire inside Alma No. 1 two weeks after Sago. At the Alma mine Don I. Bragg, 33, and Ellery Elvis Hatfield, 47, died at work. The report cited defective sprinklers, disconnected fire alarms and incomplete inspections by federal agents as contributing to the fatal fire.

The mine was “set up to be a death trap in the event of an accident and that’s what it became,” said United Mine Workers union President Cecil Roberts. “These are Massey management’s responsibilities. These are things they’re supposed to be staying on top of.

“The report clearly shows that this is a tragedy that didn’t have to happen,” he said. “This is yet another example of what happens when upper management puts pressure on a mine to ‘run coal’ before doing anything else.”

dwinebr696 @ aol.com