By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 4, 2006
Time and again over the past four years, federal mining inspectors documented the same litany of problems at central West Virginia's Sago Mine: mine roofs that tended to collapse without warning. Faulty or inadequate tunnel supports. A dangerous buildup of flammable coal dust.
Yesterday, the mine's safety record came into sharp focus as officials searched for explanations to Monday's underground explosion. That record, as reflected in dozens of federal inspection reports, shows a succession of operators struggling to overcome serious, long-standing safety problems, some of which could be part of the investigation into the cause of the explosion that trapped 13 miners.
In the past two years, the mine was cited 273 times for safety violations, of which about a third were classified as "significant and substantial," according to documents compiled by the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Many were for problems that could contribute to accidental explosions or the collapse of mine tunnels, records show.
In addition, 16 violations logged in the past eight months were listed as "unwarrantable failures," a designation reserved for serious safety infractions for which the operator had either already been warned, or which showed "indifference or extreme lack of care," said Tony Oppegard, a former counsel to MSHA.
"That is a very high number, and it is usually indicative of a very poor safety record," Oppegard said.
Sago, a relatively small mine that listed 145 employees last year, was operated by Anker West Virginia Mining Co. until two months ago, when it was purchased by International Coal Group Inc. "Much of the bad history you're talking about was beyond our reach and ability to control," company chief executive Bennett K. Hatfield said yesterday. "But there's been dramatic improvement, and I think regulatory agencies will confirm that."
In the hours after Monday's explosion, Eugene Kitts, a company vice president for mining, said the 46 alleged violations described in MSHA's most recent inspection report were all minor. "We addressed them," he said.
But in MSHA's reports, 18 of the 46 most recent violations were listed as "significant and substantial." Among the problems cited: inadequate safeguards against the collapse of the mine roof and inadequate ventilation to guard against the buildup of deadly gases.
Other inspection reports over the past two years fault the mine for "combustibles," including a buildup of flammable coal dust and a failure to adequately insulate electric wires. Sparks from electrical equipment can ignite coal dust and methane gas, triggering fires and explosions.
The mine is contesting some of the violations, while agreeing to pay more than $24,000 in penalties to settle others.
Government documents also show a high rate of injuries and accidents at Sago. Although no miners were reported killed at the mine since at least 1995, 42 workers and contractors were injured in accidents since 2000, records show. 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, MSHA documents show.
Some serious accidents caused no injuries. For example, in the past year, large sections of the mine's rocky roof collapsed on at least 20 occasions -- but not when workers were in the affected tunnels. Some of the collapsed sections were rocky slabs of up to 100 feet long. The most recent roof collapse occurred on Dec. 5, less than a month before Monday's explosion.
J. Davitt McAteer, who headed MSHA during the Clinton administration, said he was troubled by an apparent spike in accidents and violations that occurred beginning about two years ago.
"The violations are not the worst I've ever seen -- and certainly not the best -- but I'm am concerned about the trend and the direction they're going in. It's indication to those running the operation that you've got a problem here."
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson in Tallmansville, W.Va., contributed to this report.