Sago survivor home, mine safety battle continues

PITTSBURGH — Randall McCloy, 26, thin and weak, sat inside his Simpson, W.Va., home with his wife and two children for the first time in two months. McCloy survived the worst West Virginia mining disaster in 40 years. His recovery from carbon monoxide poisoning following the Jan. 2 explosion at International Coal Group’s Sago Mine will take months.

In the halls of Congress, beneath the dome of West Virginia’s Capitol and in the small communities of the Mountain State, there’s a sharp struggle to protect the lives of the men and women whose labor keeps the lights on and the profits flowing into the bank accounts of massive coal corporations.

“Miracle” is the word most used to describe McCloy’s recovery, but many workers believe that the 11 men trapped with McCloy 250 feet underground for over 40 hours shared their fleeting oxygen with him. McCloy was one of two young miners in the doomed 13-man crew. One miner died in the initial explosion and the 11 others died later.

McCloy told The Associated Press that he is not going back to the mines. With his co-workers on his mind, he said, “It’s a delicate situation and it should be handled delicately. It’s not something you definitely want to dive right into. I am going to choose to be careful about what I say and how I word things for the families’ sake. I just feel I should show them great respect.”

Even before McCloy was able to return home, ICG re-opened the Sago Mine, March 15, amid simmering controversy between the state of West Virginia and surviving Sago families on the one hand and the coal corporations and Bush administration on the other. The Sago Mine is nonunion. As Woody Aylestock, 85, retired miner who lives in sight of the Sago Mine put it, “The coal company owns it all.”

For two months, the West Virginia Legislature, the state’s U.S. senators and representatives and the United Mine Workers union have been waging a battle to implement sweeping legislative action to prevent another Sago. ICG had been cited for 208 safety violations in the year preceeding the explosion, but fined only $24,000. Pressure from Congress forced the Mine Safety and Health Administration to increase the penalty for 43 of those violations to $105,840. To date, ICG has not paid a nickel and reserves the right to appeal.

That is all that has changed since Jan. 2. In testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said, “MSHA’s top policy makers have not been doing their job protecting and enhancing miners’ health and safety. This may be because so many of them were mine management executives before coming to MSHA. At MSHA they spend too much time trying to appease their friends and too little time looking out for miners’ interest.”

Roberts was flanked by families of miners killed on the job in West Virginia and Alabama.

The 1969 Federal Mine Health and Safety Act, enacted following the 1968 Farmington disaster which took the lives of 78 miners, provides for union representation of miners and their families to be present during a safety investigation, whether they are members of the union or not. ICG has openly defied this provision of federal law, but Sago families have stuck with the UMW.

On May 2 the state of West Virginia and MSHA will hold a public hearing in Buckhannon to get answers to questions about the lack of action by the coal companies to protect miners, and to determine the cause of the Sago Mine explosion.