Sago Mine families slam govt findings

PITTSBURGH — “I can’t tell where the coal company ends and MSHA begins,” Deborah Hamner told the Charleston Gazette after a five-hour meeting with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration in which the agency released its findings on the 2006 Sago Mine disaster.

Hamner’s husband, George Junior Hamner, died in the disaster.

After a 16-month investigation, the agency concluded that the initial explosion at the Sago Mine was “most likely” caused by a lightening strike that ignited methane gas.

The explosion trapped 13 miners underground for 40 hours. Only one, Randall McCloy Jr., survived.

MSHA found the International Coal Group (ICG), owners of Sago mine, broke 149 mine safety laws contributing to the disaster. MSHA did not cite or fine ICG.

“I think it’s horrible that International Coal Group is not going to be cited for anything,” said Pam Campbell, sister-in-law of Sago miner Marty Bennett. “It’s unbelievable.”

Dr. Donna Spadaro, an oncologist and Western Pennsylvania worker health and safety leader whose brother died in an industrial accident, was furious. “How insulting to these families and all workers,” she told the World.

Richard Stickler was appointed by President Bush to lead MSHA. Stickler was a coal operator who headed up Beth Energy’s (Bethlehem Steel) Boone County, W.Va., operations.

“Stickler and MSHA are the tools of corporate greed and the mining industry,” Spadaro said. “One would be a fool to think that justice for workers is possible under this system. I speak from personal experience as OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] did the same thing in my brother’s death.”

The United Mine Workers union and the Sago families believe too much attention has been paid to the purported cause of the explosion, the lightning strike, and not enough to the conditions created by ICG at the Sago Mine, specifically the 149 safety violations.

The media are “so focused on the lightning issue that they have pushed everything else aside,” said Campbell.

“Twelve men are dead today who should not be,” said UMWA President Cecil Roberts. “Their deaths came as the result of a series of bad decisions made by the company and the federal mine safety regulatory agency. Knowing how the methane ignited is important, but it is not really material to the subsequent deaths of the miners. The fact is that the conditions at the mine at the time of the ignition caused these 12 tragic deaths. This tragedy was preventable and should never have occurred.”

Even MSHA Director Stickler said, “I would conclude safety was not a top priority at this operation.” In 2005, ICG was cited for 208 safety violations and had an accident rate double the national average.

What happens next is muddled. Clearly, the Sago families, who have Sago stickers on their cars and trucks and have stayed with the struggle for miners’ safety for over a year, aren’t going away. The UMWA is on Capitol Hill and in the halls of state legislatures, fighting for enforcement of existing federal and state legislation and strengthening the laws. The union is also busy organizing miners into the union.

In an editorial, the Louisville Courier Journal called for stopping coal production if there is a threat of an electrical storm. “If lightning really can do what the MSHA report suggests, then clearly underground operations should be halted and miners brought outside any time bad storms move through the area.”

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